Every Jot and Tittle: Boris Johnson and Matthew’s Gospel

“We have taken back control of every jot and tittle of our regulation in a way that is complete and unfettered. From January 1 we are outside the customs union, and outside the single market”.

So spoke the British prime minister Boris Johnson, yesterday, on Christmas Eve.

These words formed part of a speech which seemed like an attempt to set out a bold new vision for the new year that is soon to come. If 2020 in Britain has been the year of covid, and of protracted negotiations with the EU, 2021 will be the year – according to the pm – in which the following can be looked forward to with confidence:

‘British laws will be made solely by the British Parliament, interpreted by UK judges sitting in UK courts… We will be able to set our own standards, to innovate in the way that we want, to originate new frameworks for the sectors in which this country leads the world, from biosciences to financial services, artificial intelligence and beyond….’

And so on. It’s fair to say that not every reaction to this speech was a positive one. Many were unconvinced by the promises delivered in the speech, many felt unable to accept its positive, optimistic tone. Brexit remains a fraught and fractious issue, and it would be surprising to see this change any time in the near future.

The language of Johnson’s speech, also, generated some confusion. What, many people asked, did ‘jot and tittle’ mean?

A copy of Tyndale’s translation of the Bible

The simple answer here, as indicated in the title of this blogpost, is that these words betray the influence of a phrase in the Gospel of Matthew. In Tyndale’s 16th century translation of the Sermon on the Mount, these were words that were used to translate the following section of Greek text:

ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν, ἕως ἂν παρέλθῃ ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ, ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου, ἕως ἂν πάντα γένηται.

For indeed I say to you: until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota [Tyndale: jot], not one punctuation mark [Tyndale: tittle] will pass away from the law, until it all happens.

Mt 5.18

Judging from the response I’ve seen on twitter, knowledge of Tyndale’s words is not widespread. Political journalists and commentators, professors of philosophy, and many others besides didn’t understand – still less appreciate – the reference to ‘jot and tittle’. For many, the phrase constituted evidence of fancy but meaningless language – pretentious-sounding hot air to cover unimpressive policy-making.

This sort of objection didn’t really strike a chord with me. Partly this is because I am sympathetic to the idea that political speech can be made interesting and varied through the use of unorthodox turns of phrase like this. Perhaps if political language didn’t usually seem so couched in a cool tone of technocratic managerialism, more people would engage meaningfully with it.

Cosimo Roselli, The Sermon on the Mount

This said, I do find the pm’s use of this phrase in the context of his trade deal speech pretty jarring, for a couple of reasons.

First, because it doesn’t really work. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is delivering a vision of a ‘new’ law, one in which people will bless their persecutors and love their enemies (not just their neighbours). So, a new set of ideas is indeed being outlined. But in this most Jewish of gospels, great trouble is taken to show that this ‘new law’ does not usurp or supersede the old (i.e. the Torah): it simply extends an already existing moral and theological vision. For Matthew, then, there is no great rupture from established Jewish law. And indeed the whole point of the ‘jot and tittle’ line in the Gospel is that not even the tiniest element of Jewish law is going to be inapplicable until ‘it all happens’ (i.e. until the eschatological, ‘end time’, vision laid out in chapter 24 of the Gospel comes to pass).

To speak of jots and tittles would have worked well, then, if the pm had been trying to emphasise that he was keeping existing arrangements (here, the use of EU law) in place. But not, I suggest, in a context where he is getting rid of them.

Second, there is the simpler point that by invoking a phrase from the Sermon on the Mount, the pm was setting up a kind of comparison between himself and Jesus as a lawmaker, as a visionary. At Christmas. On the subject of Brexit (in world-historical terms, a somewhat minor subject; in local political discourse, an unhappy topic). Not the best of combinations if you’ve already gained something of a reputation as an egomaniac.

This, then, is why – for me – the pm’s reference to ‘jot’ and ‘tittle’ was a jarring one.

It has been an interesting prompt, though, to turn back to my commentaries on the Greek text of Matthew to take a look at the two words on which Tyndale based his translation in the original Greek: iota and keraia. Both words are used to signify smallness in this phrase.

Iota is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet – so that explains its use here. The meaning of keraia (in Tyndale’s rendering, tittle), however, is altogether less clear.

I translated it above as ‘punctuation mark’. But in their brilliant commentary, WD Davies and Dale Allison suggest a range of possible, more precise meanings. Keraia literally means a ‘horn’. Here this may mean scribal ornaments, or the small serifs or strokes that differentiated certain very similar Hebrew and Aramaic letters; or it may refer to accents and breathings; or to the very smallest Hebrew and Aramaic letter, yod; or to the Semitic equivalent of ‘and’ – the ubiquitous waw (w).

Whichever of these the word refers to, the overall point is the same: even the smallest parts of the Torah (i.e. Jewish law) will remain in place, even as Jesus announces his own vision of the meaning of the law.

The pm’s use of the phrase in the context of his trade deal with the EU sounds an altogether different note.