Comparing the meaning and application of “jot and tittle” from Matthew 5:18 with the assertions of Peter Van Kleeck
During the recent debate between Dr. James White and Dr. Peter Van Kleeck, there was a brief discussion about Matthew 5:18 and the meaning of “jot and tittle”. The assertion which Dr. Van Kleeck was affirming, in relation to the topic of the debate which was “The Textus Receptus is equal to NT Autographs“, was that the Protestant Reformers (and even into the Post-Reformation) saw this passage as having great meaning for his position. What greater authority should one have than when Jesus said that “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”? Van Kleeck was citing that statement as proof that the Textus Receptus perfectly represents the autographs of the New Testament scriptures as written by the Apostles or their scribes. It seems that from Van Kleeck’s perspective, Jesus assured us that not even a “jot and tittle” would be different – and he firmly believes that the Textus Receptus contains every “jot and tittle” of the autographs.
In a section beginning at 1:20:13, Van Kleeck stated the following:
Matthew 5:18 okay so he [Dr. White] says it doesn’t mean “jot and tittle”. Yes it does. See how that argument works you can just get up and hand wave and be like “it doesn’t mean ‘jot and tittle’ it means law” and I’d be like “No, it actually does mean ‘jot and tittle’ right and we can fight about it and he can say “I got guys nowadays and they’re going to say it doesn’t mean ‘jot and tittle’ it means law.” and I’ll be like “I got guys who say it actually means ‘jot and tittle’ I quoted guys to you in my opening statement that said “words, syllables, and letters”. Sound like ‘jot and tittle’ to you? Sound like it was from the Protestant Reformation? Yes.
Below let us look briefly at several statements from some “guys nowadays” who stated that “jot and tittle” has reference to the Law and not, rather, to the pure preservation of the New Testament autographs (and Scripture as a whole). Before I go into that, I wanted to draw a brief parallel to something else that Dr. Van Kleeck would assert near the end of the debate in one of the final cross-examination sections. He was pushing back on Dr. White in claiming that James appeared to be saying that the people in the pew could not ever properly understand Scripture without being able to read it in the original Hebrew and Greek. Dr. Van Kleeck was wrong in asserting that of Dr. White, but he was right in his concern that we as believers have a Bible that we can understand in our own language. As we have seen above in his concern that “jot and tittle” is not taken as “words, syllables, and letters”, we must necessarily apply this to the translations that we have. However, we also will see below that “jots and tittles” were considered to be “bendings” and “bowings” that were on the top of some Hebrew letters. Since this is not a consideration in English translations, for example, what assurances can Dr. Van Kleeck give us that one translation of the Old Testament gives us the sense of those bendings and bowings over against another translation?
Thomas White, a member of the Westminster Assembly, stated the following in his comments on Matthew 5:18. His conclusion is that even though some things may appear to have been put in the Law needlessly, they were not.
Here he goes further, for before he said that he did not come to destroy; and here he assures them that it shall never be destroyed, nor cease till it be in every point fulfilled. 2. See how Christ preacheth with authority, I say. 3. By one jot or tittle is meant, not the lest part or point. 4. By consequence, that not one jot or tittle, nothing, not a word, not a letter, not a title of the Law is in vain put there, and as jod and iota, are not only the least letters, but divers times though they were written, are not pronounced, and so seem needlesse letters: So though some things in the Law seem not only small but needlesse, yet they are not in vain, for till heaven and earth, &c. 5. Till, doth not alwayes argue Psal. 110.1.
Henry Hammond, also a member of the Westminster Assembly, in his annotations on Matthew 5:18 stated the following in summary of his discussion of the possible etymologies of “jot and tittle”:
And accordingly it is here set to denote any the smallest inconsiderable parts, any minutiae in the Law.
John Prideaux, in a sermon, can be found to have stated the following on Matthew 5:18:
It was not for nought, our Saviour interserts this Item, in his sermon on the Mount, Mat. 5.18. one jot, or one title, shall in no wise passe from the law, till all be fulfilled. Jots and tittles then in the law, are not superfluous curiosities, but such as the right use of them, may make to cleare the Text, and are worthy of exactest scanning.
John Calvin, in his commentary on Matthew 5:18, also took this verse to refer to the contents of the law in general.
Let it suffice for us to hold, that sooner shall heaven fall to pieces, and the whole frame of the world become a mass of confusion, than the stability of the law shall give way. But what does it mean, that every part of the law shall be fulfilled down to the smallest point? for we see, that even those, who have been regenerated by the Spirit of God, are very far from keeping the law of God in a perfect manner. I answer, the expression, shall not pass away, must be viewed as referring, not to the life of men, but to the perfect truth of the doctrine. “There is nothing in the law that is unimportant, nothing that was put there at, random; and so it is impossible that a single letter shall perish.”
Martin Luther, on Matthew 5:18, would also make similar statements.
That is, I insist upon it, that it must all be taught and held pure and entire, and not the least part of it be done away; whereby he shows that he found it far otherwise, namely, that both doctrine and life had not been rightly conducted. Therefore he must (as here follows) take in hand both of these and thoroughly salt them, that there may be a purification. So also must we teach that we do not allow a letter to be detached from the gospel, but say: Everything must be taught, believed and held purely. He thus intimates that he is about to preach a sharp sermon, and will not lie under the charge that he means to destroy the law; but will turn the attack from himself upon them, and prove how they have weakened and destroyed the law, and for this have daubed their glosses over it. Just as our papistic neighbors have done with the gospel and the Scriptures, when they utterly ignored the most important topic, justification by faith; also, they have withheld one form from the sacrament and concealed the words of the sacrament; yes, they have so coarsely misrepresented, that they have preached these commandments which Christ here announces, not as necessary statutes, but as merely good counsels, directly contrary to these words and stipulations, that sooner heaven and earth must pass away than that one of the least of these be not observed.
Finally, William Perkins, in a sermon exposition of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, stated what we find below. He first discusses the background of the words but then states that we should not take it “properly” as meaning that letters may not have been changed. Rather we can rest assured knowing that the meaning has not been changed.
Again, by Title some think is meant the Hebrew vowels; but properly it signifieth a line bent crooked, or the top of an horn; so that here it properly signifieth the bending or bowing that is in the top of some Hebrew letters; insinuating, that not so much as the least part of a letter in the Law should passe away. Now these things must not be taken properly, for it hath been, and may be, that in the Hebrew copies of the old Testament, some letters should be changed, as may appear by the diverse readings in sundrie copies; for that may be without the loss of any sentence: but Christs meaning is this; That not the least parcel or sentence in the Law shall pass away; making parts in the Law, to be as tittles in the Alphabet…. this is the meaning of this verse; That the Law of God is unchangeable, not only in the whole, but for every part thereof; and the fulfilling thereof shall never have an end. Christ’s reason then stands thus; If the Law be immutable, and for observation eternal, then I came not to destroy it: but the Law is immutable and eternal; and therefore I came not to destroy it.