For Bible Study Nerds

OK, brace yourself Bible Study Nerd, because this commentary section is going to be longer than normal. You’ve been warned.

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs…” What the heck does that mean?

Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:6 are difficult to follow given the context of the verses before and after them. “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs…” seems either an abrupt shift of topic, or a confusing turn of thought. That situation lends credence to the idea that Matthew’s record of the Sermon on the Mount may not have been from one uninterrupted lecture, but rather (as Bible historian, Stephen M. Miller describes it), “The Best of Jesus, a condensed version of all his most important teachings.”

Regardless, trying to decipher the symbolism of Matthew 7:6 is a perplexing task. Jesus didn’t feel the need to identify what each key element represented, and that makes it somewhat confusing. It appears Matthew 7:6 was a maxim his original hearers would have understood without much explanation, but which doesn’t have clear interpretation to the modern ear. We’re left to make our own best guesses, so here goes…

The reference to “what is sacred” probably referred to meat from ritual animal sacrifice which was dedicated to God as a sin offering (Leviticus 4:1-5:13). As such, it could represent holiness and a vehicle for salvation. Pearls were considered a prized jewel, a “touchstone of beauty, value, and permanence.” They would seem to represent some or all of God’s truth. Dogs and pigs were reviled scavengers in ancient Jewish society, so calling a person a dog was a humiliating, contemptible insult. Only the worst of the worst would be compared to dogs and pigs, thus Jesus’ reference here obviously represented some class of people with contemptible habits and standards.

There, you understand Matthew 7:6 completely now, don’t you? Well, me neither. However, there are a few popular interpretations that are worth summarizing here, as food for thought:

  • Theory #1: Pearls and “what is sacred” represent the gospel of Jesus. Dogs and pigs represent “unbelievers who repeatedly hear Jesus’ teaching, yet persist in rejecting and attacking it.” Thus sharing Jesus’ gospel with antagonistic enemies of Christ is to devalue that gospel, to cast your pearls before swine. This view of tempered evangelism is favored by most theologians, but seems inconsistent with Christ’s own teaching elsewhere (Matthew 28:19-20) and his own actions (Acts 9:1-19). To my mind, the jury is out on this one.
  • Theory #2: Pearls and “what is sacred” represent the high moral standards of Christian behavior. Dogs and pigs represent unbelievers. In this interpretation, Jesus’ followers are not “to seek to impose high moral standards on unbelievers” or to attempt to “use biblical standards to reform society.” This view is not as common as the previous one, but it is not uncommon either. Still, it does seem to impose a modern political problem on an ancient theological context.
  • Theory #3: Pearls and “what is sacred” represent God’s truth. Dogs and pigs represent religious leaders who are corrupted stewards of God’s truth. In this interpretation, followers of Christ are admonished not to entrust church leadership positions (those who steward God’s messages in this world) to hypocritical people who corrupt God’s truth. This view is not commonly held, but it fits within the context of Matthew 6:1-7:6 where Jesus repeatedly excoriates the hypocrisy of leadership demonstrated in Pharisees and other religious leaders of his time. It’s also consistent with Paul’s description of hypocritical legalistic who vied for leadership in the early church (see Philippians 3:2).

So which view is right? Hard for me to say at this point…What do you think?


Works Cited:

[CGB, 308; DBI, 633; ZB1, 51; BCB, 731; BAH, 273]



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About: Mike Nappa

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