In his second discourse in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus prepares his followers for the rigours of Kingdom life, particularly the response of non-believers to their Kingdom message. He is about to send his apostles two-by-two throughout Israel. Jesus acknowledges that he sends them as sheep in the midst of wolves, but then counsels that this requires them “to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves”(10:16). In one segment of Jesus’ teaching we have reference to sheep, wolves, serpents and doves, used to characterize either his followers or his opponents.
The metaphorical ideas are rather jumbled. What shepherd would deliberately disperse his flock of sheep into places ravaged by wolves? And how would sheep, generally regarded as rather simple animals, behave with the wisdom of serpents? Acting with innocence seems more sheep-like, but then we have to understand what Jesus meant by this term “innocent” (akeraios) and why doves seem to demonstrate this trait particularly. Using animals to denote human attributes or behaviour was common in the Wisdom literature of Israel and Jesus in this context chooses to teach his disciples in that traditional manner.
The adjective akeraios literally means “unmixed, unadulterated” and thus in a positive sense signifies something pure. Philo, for example, in his account of his attempt to intercede with the Roman Emperor, Gaius, to save the Jews of Alexandria, records the effort by Agrippa, the Jewish client king, to dissuade Gaius from placing a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple. Although Gaius finally agrees with Agrippa’s evaluation, Philo reports that “the concession thus granted by [Gaius] was not unmixed (akeraion), but had blended with it a very grave cause of alarm.”1 Gaius ordered no statues to be placed in Jerusalem, but gave permission for them to be placed throughout Judea.
The pre-Christian Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates ostensibly describes the origins of the Greek translation of the Pentateuch. The author narrates how Demetrius, the head of the Alexandrian library, requested Ptolemy to have the Hebrew religious materials translated into Greek because “their legislation is most philosophical and flawless (akeraion), inasmuch as it is divine.”2
Josephus used this adjective to describe the ability of a judge to hear an accused’s defence with “unprejudiced (akeraious) ears.”3 When he retells the story of Cain, he blames him for serving as humanity’s “instructor in wicked practices” and destroying their “guileless (akeraion) generous existence.”4 In another context he narrates Joshua’s attack on Ai and the ruse he used to conquer it. Josephus describes the consternation of the Ai defenders when they returned to their city, “supposing it to be intact (akeraion)” but discovering it in flames.5
The adjective also conveys a moral sense. Artaxerxes in a letter found in addition E of the Greek text of Esther explains how he was deceived “by malicious trickery” that Haman exhibited, with the result that his attempts to rule “with sincere (akeraion) goodwill” were thwarted.6 In this case we may discern the sense of Jesus’ statement. As his followers live and serve “among wolves”, i.e. malicious people, they must be wise, but not allow this malicious environment to destroy their sincere, guileless discipleship. They must not let their obedience become impaired when confronted by evil.
A similar sense emerges in a funerary inscription (dated to III/IV AD) memorializing a young girl who died just before her twelfth birthday. Using first person, the inscription describes her this way: “Although I knew nothing of men’s wickedness, nor was an initiate of life’s utmost bitterness, but was still undefiled (akeraios)….”7 Note how again it is the lack of experience or involvement with wickedness and grief that defines the state of akeraios.
These examples suggest a semantic range for this term that includes the concepts of unmixed, unimpaired, unadulterated; flawless, intact; pure, innocent, sincere.
This adjective also occurs in Romans 16:19 and Philippians 2:15. At the conclusion to his Roman letter Paul warns the recipients about false teachers and urges them to “be wise about what is good, and innocent (akeraious) about what is evil.” Paul does not mean naïve, because he warns them in 16:18 not be naïve in regards to this false teaching. Further, immediately after (16:20) he promises that “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” Paul may be saying that followers of Jesus do not have to worry about defeating Satan, because God already has that in hand. Their responsibility is to follow Jesus obediently, blameless with respect to evil and discerning about false teaching.
Paul’s second reference comes in Philippians 2:15. He employs three alpha-privative adjectives (amemptoi, akeraioi, amōma) to describe “God’s children” who exist in the midst of “a crooked and depraved generation.” This disposition enables them to “shine like stars in the universe,” while they disseminate the word of life. Two of these adjectives describe morally blameless and faultless people. Set in between them is the adjective akeraios. Context would suggest a similar sense, perhaps as the New International Version renders it, “pure,” i.e. with their Christian morality intact.
Again, it should be noted that in both Pauline contexts the word akeraios defines the behaviour of a person living in the context of evil opposition, but untouched by that evil.
But what makes a dove a particularly appropriate illustration of the person who is akeraios, as Jesus indicates in Matthew 10:16 (“akeraioi as doves”)? Diverse traits are linked with doves in antiquity. In the Old Testament doves were suitable sin-offerings for the poor. The author of the Song of Songs (5:2; 6:9) speaks of his love as “my dove, my perfect one,” a term which in the moral sphere signifies integrity. Samuel Lachs notes that in Rabbinic literature Israel is described as a dove: “With me they are innocent as doves, but with the nations of the world they are like cunning serpents.”8 The innocence defines their relationship with God.
There may be a sacrificial sense to Jesus’ use of this motif. The context describes how his followers will be mistreated and put to death, sacrificing themselves for his sake. The idea would be then that his followers are to keep themselves in right relationship with God all the while they are on mission, despite the evil and malicious activity directed against them. They must remain without contamination and thus pure, suitable sacrifices.
Whether this is the primary sense of this simile is disputed. What seems to be agreed generally, however, is that the key idea involves integrity or innocence. As these disciples represent Jesus in the Jewish context, they are to conduct themselves as accountable to the Lord Jesus and this requires them to be morally pure. Perhaps there is an intentional irony in Jesus’ use of these animal similes of snake and dove, if they were being used to describe Israel in his day (as they were in later Rabbinic Literature). Jesus reapplies these similes so that his followers, not Israel, are to be the cunning, but innocent ones and Israel, not the Gentiles, becomes the hostile context. This would certainly be compatible with other aspects of Jesus’ teaching, as he redefines the concept of Israel with himself as the centre.
- although Jesus’ words applied initially to the twelve apostles as he sent them out two-by-two to share his mission within Israel, the principles remain. A passage such as 1 Peter 3:13-18 indicates how pertinent this advice continued to be. So one key question to consider today would be this – are you retaining your moral and spiritual integrity as you represent Jesus within a culture that generally is opposed to God and his ways?
- are you being faithful to the mission that Jesus has called you to fulfill, even though you are like “a sheep among wolves”?
- what special wisdom do you need from God’s Spirit today to sustain your service with integrity?
- 1 Philo, De Legatione ad Gaium, section 334.
- 2 Moses Hadas, editor and translator, Aristeas to Philocrates (New York: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1973), 111, section 31. Henry Meecham in his edition of this document indicates this word signifies “unimpaired” (cf. The Letter of Aristeas (Manchester University Press, 1935), 201).
- 3 Josephus, Jewish War I. 621.
- 4 Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 1.61.
- 5 Ibid., V. 47.
- 6 The Greek translation of Esther has several interpolations. This text is the fifth one, generally referred to as E, and the phrase occurs in the 6th verse.
- 7 G.H.R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, Volume 4 (Macquarie University, 1987), 34.
- 8 Samuel Lachs, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Hoboken, New Jersey: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1987), 181.