by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:18 NAS)
If you grew up hearing the King James Version of the Bible read, you would have heard the above passage with the words ‘… not one jot or one tittle … “. Perhaps you learned that this was some type of punctuation mark equivalent to our English apostrophe. The “jot” that Jesus was referring to was the Hebrew letter yod. It is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, just a half a line long. It looks like a small capital “L” rotated 180°. Furthermore, in what we translate “tittle” or “stroke of a pen,” Jesus was referring to “the thorn of the yod” which is just the small curve at the top of the letter, a slight embellishment on the yod. In our rendering of it above, when written with a bit of a flair it looks like a ram’s horn: a shofar.
So what Jesus was saying was, not the smallest letter or even a decoration on the letter will disappear. This is actually a well-known Hebrew expression, “lo yod v’lo kotso shel yod” which is, “not a yod or a thorn of a yod,” meaning “not the most insignificant or unimportant thing.”
What was Jesus saying by this? This is a difficult question, with a long answer. But briefly put, he was affirming the sanctity of God’s word to his people, that his coming was to bring the scriptures to their fulfillment, not to undermine them. While the Torah taught the people to live the life the way God wanted, Jesus would give them eternal life by repentance and trust in him, the Torah incarnate.
See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.
For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg, OurRabbiJesus.com, 2014 (ebook).