Sunday, August 30, 2009

Great Books: The Gospel According to Matthew (Part 7)

The first six parts of this essay can be accessed in the archive on the right side of the screen under August 2009.

The Gospel According to Matthew recounts two events happening directly before the momentum of Jesus’s trial, crucifixion and resurrection sweep the story towards its end. The first is offered so haphazardly and without comment that it is easy to miss in the shadow of the second, which consumes all but the entirety of two chapters. Matthew writes:

Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down. [24:1,2]

It is impossible as a discerning modern reader to ignore the probability that the Gospel of Matthew was most likely written after not just the temple but the entire city of Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE. It is just one leap of logic from there to discounting this passage as a wholly fabricated attribution rather than one that existed within the Jesus tradition prior to its writing. However, a passage from later in the Gospel serves to put a question mark at the end of our inquiry as Matthew writes that:

The chief priests and the whole council sought false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last, two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and build it in three days’” [26:59-61]

Unlike the first passage, which reads like retroactive prophecy, this statement is more consistent with Jesus’s rhetorical strategy of questioning the idea of what was possible in the minds of his listeners. It also resonates with his frequent pronouncements that he would be killed in Jerusalem and, on the third day, be resurrected. If that were to happen, the temple’s authority (if not the physical structure itself) would be destroyed and rebuilt as no Jew (or Greek or Roman for that matter) would be able to deny the hand of God at work in the life and resurrection of Jesus, the prophet from Galilee. For this reason, we may be inclined to see Matthew’s inclusion of this prophecy as less of an attempt to corrupt or add to the record of Jesus’s ministry while on Earth and more of a rhetorical flourish that was grounded in extent elements of the pre-existing oral tradition while playing to the Jewish peoples, perhaps shaken in their faith, that were now dispersed all over the Roman empire.

The rest of Chapters Twenty-four and Twenty-five are given over to a long and tonally unique sermon/teaching that Jesus delivers to his disciples. In the early portion of his ministry (as John had before him), Jesus had warned any who might listen to repent as the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Now, with prophesies of not only his imminent demise but that of the temple as well hanging like a dark cloud over the disciples, Matthew suggests that they came to Jesus looking for some clarity on the matter, asking him “when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” [24:3]. Matthew’s account of Jesus’s response is a dense mixture of exhortation, prophesy and theological teaching that can be distilled down to a basic message of continued vigilance but, again, there are elements that smack of historical revisionism as Jesus describes elements of the Jewish experience that would have been all too familiar not only to the displaced Jewish communities at the end of the First century of the Common Era but also to early Christians suffering persecution at the hands of Imperial Rome.

Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another, and hate one another….But he who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end is come…And alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as had not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. [24:9,10,17-21]

Having completed his teachings to the disciples, Jesus announced that he planned to observe Passover in Jerusalem, after which “the Son of man will be delivered up to be crucified” [26:2]. While Jesus lingered in Bethany before Passover, one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot was said to have met in secret with the Pharisees who sought to arrest Jesus when he was far from the crowds that too often surrounded him. Matthew’s account of the Last Supper actually begins with Jesus calling Judas out as his betrayer before moving on to the textual basis for the transmutation of the bread and the wine as the blood and body of Christ in Christian Worship.

After the dinner, Jesus and the disciples went first to Mount Olive and then to the garden of Gesthemane. Just as he had done during the Transfiguration, Jesus pulled Peter, John and James apart from the other disciples and asked them to pray with him until the moment of his arrest should come. Unlike the first time, when they were given a privileged glimpse at Jesus’s divine status, the disciples fall asleep not once but three times until Jesus finally wakes them, saying, “Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand” [26:45,46].

Even as Jesus spoke the words, Matthew tells us that Judas arrived with the Pharisees and identified his master with a kiss upon greeting. After token resistance from the disciples, Jesus commanded them to allow him to be taken so that “the scripture be fulfilled” and, with that, Jesus was taken into custody. Jesus is first interrogated by the Pharisees but Matthew’s Gospel is ambiguous about the location of this interrogation, saying only that they “led him to Caiaphas the high priest where the scribes and elders had gathered” [26:57].

Matthew stipulates that Peter (alone among the disciples) had followed the lynching party in secret and therefore might have been able to deliver a first-hand account of what was said there, thus adding to the veracity of this portion of the story that would have otherwise taken place out of sight of those with the greatest investment in the outcome. Though Jesus refused to answer any of their charges, the priests and elders were reportedly able to extract enough blasphemous teaching from him to justify their want of his murder and, by morning, he was marched before Pontius Pilate, a Roman who governed the province of Judea. Here, Matthew’s gospel makes its final diversion away from Jesus before his death to disclose Judas’s final fate, committing suicide upon hearing the news of Jesus’s condemnation.

In Matthew’s account of the story, Jesus is brought before Pilate only once and Herod Antipas does not figure into the story. Pilate asked of Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews” [27:11], suggesting that the crime he was being tried for was not blasphemy but treason against Roman authority. Jesus, as before, refuses to answer his accusers. Matthew’s Gospel (consistent with the other gospels) tries its level best to exonerate Pilate of any guilt in Jesus’s murder, going so far at the close of the trial to note that Pilate “took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves” [27:24]. The Jews, on the other hand, do not fare as well as they gleefully proclaim that “His blood shall be on us and our children!” [27:25], laying groundwork for the idea that God had turned its back on Jerusalem later for their complicity in Jesus’s execution, resulting in the destruction, as prophesied, not only of the temple but of the very city itself at Roman hands.

After being scourged, Jesus was first mocked by the Roman legions (who dressed him up in a scarlet robe and made to wear a crown of thorns), then stripped and marched to Golgotha where, we are told, he was crucified. Once again, the issue of the destruction of the Temple is raised by a passerby who mocks Jesus saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself!” It is also worthy of note that, of all of Jesus’s followers, only “many women…among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” are specifically mentioned as having borne direct witness to Jesus’s death.

After Jesus dies, Matthew’s gospel tells us that a rich man named Joseph goes to Pilate and is allowed to receive Jesus’s body from the Romans. The body was prepared according to tradition and then placed into a “new tomb,” which Joseph then “rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb” [27:60]. The Pharisees, for their part, brought it to Pilate’s attention that if the disciples stole Jesus’s body and then claimed he was resurrected, it might be worse than having just left him alone. Pilate then commanded that a group of soldiers should go and secure the entrance, both by sealing the rock and posting a guard.

Yet, the next day, the two Mary’s went to see the tomb and were surprised to find “an angel of the Lord” who, in the form of a great earthquake, had “rolled back the stone, and sat upon it” [28:2]. Though the soldiers guarding the tomb were said have “trembled and become like dead men,” the angel told the two women not to fear for “I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said” [28:5,6]. Given instructions to inform the disciples of his resurrection, the women departed at once but were met by Jesus on their way who tells them to have the disciples meet him in Galilee. After implicating the Jews in covering up the truth of Jesus’s resurrection, Matthew’s Gospel closes with the following passage:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” [28:16-20]

This passage, perhaps more than any other in the Gospel According to Matthew, underscores the nature of the audience to whom this book was directed. It assumes that the question of Gentile conversion (still a hot topic for debate in Paul’s time) as one already settled. It assumes the concept of the Trinity, though the Holy Spirit is barely mentioned in the Gospel itself. In attaching the word “always” to “the close of the age,” it also assumes that that “close” has been moved from Jesus’s earlier proclamation that “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” [16:28] to some undisclosed date in the future. For these reasons, among many others, it seems most likely that the Gospel According to Matthew was written after the destruction of the Jerusalem and was directed towards existing Christian communities as well as sympathetic pagans who had just enough knowledge and respect for the Jewish tradition to appreciate the idea that it had not been lost in the wars but, like Jesus himself, had risen from the grave and become something new and transformative in nature.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Great Books: The Gospel According to Matthew (Part 6)

The first five segments of this essay can be accessed at the right of the screen, archived under August of 2009.

Following the Transfiguration, Jesus moved his ministry, by Matthew’s account, forcefully towards his detractors and enemies. By the end of the seventeenth chapter, Matthew has Jesus back in Galilee with his disciples where he re-iterates the formula of his final and greatest miracle, saying that “The Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day” [17:23]. Mere verses later, they are in Capernaum where Jesus delivered a new set of teachings on the kingdom of heaven to the disciples, mixing parables with more power inversion metaphors (“Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” [18:4]) so that his disciples might better understand his vision.

Assuming that Jesus traveled to Caesarea Phillipi to avoid the direct scrutiny of Herod Antipas and the Pharisees in Galilee, his return would not have gone unnoticed. In declaring, while abroad, that he would soon be murdered in Jerusalem, one can almost sense that Jesus, offered the choice of exile in Phillipi or persecution in Galilee, chose a third, more radical option to take his ministry to the geographic heart of the Jewish faith, Jerusalem. Given the vehement response of the Galilean Pharisees, he could only have assumed that his arrival at Jerusalem would not be well-received by those most deeply invested in the continued orthodoxy of the Law. Upon completing his teachings in Galilee, Jesus “went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan; and large crowds followed him there” [19:1]

The Jordan, in this story, is like the Rubicon in that of Julius Caesar’s before him. John baptized at the river but there is no suggestion in the text that he sought to move his ministry from the wilderness into the city. Once Jesus moved beyond it, there was no turning back but through the abandonment of his teaching and probably foreign exile for he was truly surrounded by his enemies with no place for easy retreat. Immediately upon his arrival, the Pharisees are shown to plague him with questions about the kingdom of heaven and the role of the Law in it. Interestingly and in contrast with his earlier missions in Galilee, these protestations are not preceded by miracles or healing. These doctrinal disputes supersede Jesus’s mission of healing the sick and teaching to the people for nearly all of chapter nineteen and twenty. Matthew manages to squeeze in the anecdotal healing of two blind men at Jericho while achieving the bonus goal of showing Jesus’s ministry still in motion towards the capital.

The first of those arguments adroitly reveals the politics that underscored their otherwise religious differences.

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother to be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” [19:3-6]

By the time Jesus arrived in Judea, it under direct Roman control, having been taken out of the hands of Herod Archelaus when he was deposed in 6 CE. Though the seat of Roman authority was in the costal city of Caesarea, the religious authority was invested into the Temple at Jerusalem in Judea. It is not hard to imagine that the Pharisees invested their own interest into Herod Antipas, tetrarch of neighboring Galilee as the real king of the Jews; especially when one considers that Herod Archelaus had, in part, been removed from his position of authority after a particular brutal persecution of the sect of the Pharisees. As the above-cited passage was the very first question that Matthew portrays the Pharisees as presenting to Jesus upon his arrival, it gives the impression that the theological battle begins on the same turf that they fought (and won) against John years earlier.

In the twenty-first chapter, Jesus and the disciples “drew near to Jerusalem” [21:1] and Jesus sent two disciples ahead to procure a foal and a donkey for his dramatic arrival at the cultural center of the country. Depending on one’s viewpoint, his careful navigation of historical prophecy regarding the coming of the Christ can be seen as divinely inspired and/or very shrewd. The scene that Matthew paints of his arrival would have been one difficult for anyone, let alone those in authority at the Temple, to ignore.

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon. Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.” [21:6-11]

Even with a riotous entrance as this, Jesus did not allow himself to be upstaged by the theatrics of his followers as in the following passage, Matthew tells us that Jesus entered the Temple and, now famously, “overturned the tables of the money-lenders and the seats of those who sold pigeons” [21:12]. Now, it is possible that Jesus did exactly what that passage suggests; namely, that he entered the Temple and went on a one-man vandalism spree. But had he actually perpetuated such a visceral and visual display in the public eye, surely it would have been an actionable crime that would have given the Pharisees all the ammunition they needed to bring him before the Romans. A second interpretation might consider, that in his teachings in the Temple that follow, Jesus’s disdain for the business of religion would have been perceived as a threat to those two groups (money-lenders and pigeon-sellers) in precisely the same way that Paul’s exhortations to the god-fearing Pagans in Greece decades later might have threatened the idol-crafting business to the point that a mob would form and nearly beat him to death. Preaching against the need for the blood-sacrifice of the Temple would have overturned the tables and seats of those who stood to profit just as assuredly as someone coming in and physically upending their stalls and tables.

Afterwards, Jesus remained in the Temple and engaged in his more typical ministerial duties of healing the sick but left Jerusalem for the city of Bethany (or Bethabara) which was near the Jordan river. The next few sections lead us to believe that Jesus would travel to and from Jerusalem but rarely stayed overnight there, perhaps due to issues of personal security. There is also the implicit suggestion that Jesus was practicing two ministries, one near the river that drew from the common people who had followed John and a second in the Temple, teaching and debating with the Pharisees. Matthew offers two parables delivered in the Temple and directed specifically at the Pharisees but, in chapter twenty-three, he is noted as saying “to the crowds and to his disciples” that “[t]he scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach but do not practice” [23:1-3]. The invective during this section is particularly venomous and though the passage often veers into direct address to the Pharisees, it is at best ambiguous whether it is being delivered in Temple or at one of his mass meetings down by the river. Given that every passage previous that was clearly set in the Temple was joined by some kind of rebuttal, it lends credence to the idea that Jesus was reaching out to one audience by day and quite another by night.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Great Books: The Gospel According to Matthew (Part 5)

The first four parts of this essay can be found archived on the right of the screen from August of 2009.

Matthew next breaks up a longish section of familiar sermons and miracles with a little history, filling us in on the death of John the Baptist at Herod’s hands. Though neither Jesus nor John are captured in the historical record during their time on Earth, a great deal is known about Herod Antipas and, from this data, we can gain nuance in our understanding of this account. Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great (the Herod from the wise men story earlier in the gospel) and was proclaimed ruler of the territory of Galilee among others. While in Rome petitioning for Augustus to honor his father’s will that would grant him authority over these regions, Antipas developed a relationship with Herodias, his brother’s wife and they decided to divorce their spouses and marry. John, while preaching in Galilee, decried this marriage as against Jewish law, implying that Antipas’s values were Roman (where this sort of thing happened as a matter of politics all the time) and not appropriate for a man who might otherwise have called himself king of at least some of the Jews. Herod Antipas had John imprisoned for it and, eventually, had him executed.

Matthew’s account adds some spice to the story by portraying Antipas as reluctant to have John killed (presumably from a vague fear of divine retribution) but is coerced by his wife’s daughter, Salome to deliver John’s head to her on a platter as a reward for some sexy dancing. Perhaps, then, motivated by his guilty conscience, “Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus; and he said to his servants, ‘This is John the Baptist, he has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him’” [14:1,2]. While we can spend any amount of time allotted debating the historicity of Matthew’s account here, two elements of this story resonate as thematic rather than strictly narrative. First, Jesus had, to some extent, co-opted John’s ministry in his absence (clearly evidenced in Chapter 11) and now Herod is shown as seeing Jesus as the resurrection of John. This, though more subtle than Jesus’s reference to Jonah in the whale’s belly for three days, foreshadows Christ’s own resurrection later in the gospel.
Second, Herod’s unwitting participation in John’s murder parallels that of Pontius Pilate in regards to Jesus’s crucifixion. Both are essentially seduced by players with ulterior motives into capitulating rather than ordering the respective executions by the dictates of their own will and conscience.

Returning his story, then to Jesus, Matthew unveils a new miracle, the feeding of many from almost nothing. Like the story of Jesus commanding the sea (which is recycled later, adding the feat of Jesus walking on the water instead of just rebuking it), this miracle seems tonally different from the leper-cleansing and demon-casting that makes up his daily routine wherever he travels. Matthew ties its first appearance into the death of John the Baptist, writing that

…when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there [Nazareth?] in a boat to a lonely place apart. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. As he went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit on the grass; and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to the heaven, and blessed, and broke, and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. [14:13-21]

A mere chapter later, we get this:

Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days, and have nothing to eat; and I an unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” And the disciples said to him, “Where are we to get bread enough in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” And Jesus said, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven and a few small fish.” And commanding the crowd to sit on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied; and they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over. Those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children. [15:32-38]

It is possible to accept those two stories as literal accounts of what happened on two completely different occasions but only as a matter of faith. In restricting our analysis solely to the text, however, it is impossible to ignore parallel phrases used in both passages that suggest that this story may have stemmed from the same event. Moreover, the precision with which numbers are used in this passage (two fishes, five loaves, twelve baskets, seven loaves, seven baskets) makes us wonder how Hebrew numerology (wound inextricably into the Torah of which Matthew’s author shows a great knowledge through this gospel) would slant a reading of this passage by a converted Jew even one hundred years after Jesus’s death. Unlike other miracles, where Matthew is precise about the details, these two events are less clear. Though it implies that Jesus somehow multiplied the amount of food available, it never comes right out and says that, only that the people were satisfied and that a portion larger than the one they began with remained. This ambiguity is consistent in both accounts and, again, can leave the reader with the perception that the story may have been more important in its symbolic meaning than in its actual occurence during Jesus’s ministry.

The gospel shifts back into a more simplified journalistic mode about midway through chapter sixteen as Jesus is placed back into a physical context, coming “into the district of Caesarea Phillipi” [16:13] where he begins teaching a healing for a new, more metropolitan audience. While Matthew omits this detail, this move actually took Jesus out of Galilee and, more importantly, out from under Herod Antipas’s authority. This lends credence to the idea that Jesus, seen as the heir to John’s ministry, was coming under Herod’s scrutiny for likewise condemning his divorce and re-marriage (as expressed during the Sermon on the Mount) as sinful and un-Jewish.

Upon arriving at Caesarea Phillipi, Matthew tells us that:

[Jesus] asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him saying, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven”...Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. From that time, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day, be raised. [16:13-17,20,21]

After this revelation, Jesus took three disciples, Peter, John and James up to a mountain top where they experienced an event often referred to as the Transfiguration. Upon their arrival, Jesus underwent a transformation where he was bathed in light and was joined by Moses and Elijah with whom he spoke. Then, “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased; listen to him’…And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, ‘Tell no one of this vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead’” [17:5,9]. The words heard by all four men (not including Moses and Elijah) are, in fact, identical to the words that Jesus alone heard upon his baptism with only the addition of the command to “listen to him” added to the account. Jesus’s command for them to keep his secret meant that, while this particular miracle had made a transformation from an internal to an external one, it did not make it from a private to a public one. Put more bluntly, had Jesus chosen to be seen as transfigured before the same crowds he fed with however many loaves and fishes, the question of Jesus’s truly divine status, at least among the people, would no longer have been in question.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Great Books: The Gospel According to Matthew (Part 4)

The first three segments of this essay can be found in archive bar to the right of the screen.

Matthew explains Jesus’s motivation to anoint the disciples to preach and heal in his stead at the end of chapter nine, saying that “Jesus went about all the cities and villages...[and] when he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” [9:35,36]. There is an argument to made, however, given that Matthew places this change of events right after the Pharisees began harassing Jesus for his teachings, that he wanted to create more moving targets for their criticism and foster the perception of a sudden uprising among the people.

Before sending the twelve out, Jesus gave them instructions on how they were to behave.

Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without pay, give without pay. Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food. [10:5-9]

This lifestyle (one we should assume Jesus himself practiced) is known as asceticism. Theologically, it resonates well with Jesus’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount where he is reported to have said, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on” [6:25]. Ideologically, this practice, perhaps also co-opted from John’s failed ministry, contrasted nicely against the concentrations of wealth locked up in the Temple and those who benefitted from it. It also meant, on a more practical level, that the disciples could not waste their time in towns unreceptive to Jesus’s message, for they were dependent upon those to whom they preached for their sustenance. Jesus himself hints at this in his instructions as he commands that “whatever village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay with him until you depart…and if any one will not receive you, or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” [10:11,14].

A second passage in this section also draws attention as Jesus prepared his followers for the type of reception they could expect to receive.

Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in the synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles…Brother will deliver brother up to death, and the father his child, and children will rise up against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. [10:16-18,21,22]

This passage is remarkable because, in Jesus’s own lifetime, none of these things are reported to have happened to anyone but him. Delivered in the specific context of sending the disciples out to spread his message, this warning seems to have been a hollow one. However, by the end of the first century CE, all of these things would have been visited upon devotees of the early church. This once again lends credence to the idea that the Gospel According to Matthew was written after Nero’s brutal persecution of the church in the mid-60s and, considered in context with later statements about the destruction of the Temple, perhaps well into the 80s. It might also be seen as a testimony to Jesus’s acumen as a prophet as well as a healer but, given the mounting evidence in the text that many of these “direct quotes” may have been inserted into rather than retained within the tradition, it is reasonable to at least consider the former more likely than the latter.

After a brief sermon presumably designed to bring wavering devotees of John the Baptist into the fold, Jesus continued his regimen of teaching and healing, rebutting the nagging Pharisees all along the way without dramatically expanding the scope his message. Then, midway through chapter twelve, Jesus dropped a bombshell that changes the contour of the rest of the gospel.

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and nights in the heart of the earth. [12:38-40]

There are two elements of this passage that warrant some careful consideration. First, the Pharisees and scribes are asking Jesus for a sign despite the fact that he has been healing lepers, giving sight to the blind, casting out demons and raising the dead in public for months. This suggests that faith healing of the variety that Jesus is doing is not unexpected in the culture of which he is a part. The Temple, in a sense, are pointing to their own gaggle of ex-lepers, formerly blind-people, non-demonically possessed and resurrected followers and requesting of Jesus some proof of his special dispensation as some above and beyond what the Law provides.

Secondly, this is the first obvious foreshadowing of Jesus’s resurrection that serves as the climax for Matthew’s gospel later on. It is especially notable that Jesus chooses a historical prophet, Jonah, with which to parallel the only sign he plans to offer of his divinity. In Matthew’s gospel, perhaps more than any of the others, Jesus is shown clearly in a tradition of prophets that stretches back to the foundation of the Jewish state many generations ago. This connection to Jonah is echoed later in the gospel as Jesus expressed reluctance in completing his mission but, ultimately, capitulated to God’s will in order to enter the belly of the whale (death), instead of being forced into it like Jonah had before him, in order that God’s will be done.

In the following section, Matthew presents Jesus teaching about the kingdom of heaven through a series of parables which he then explains in greater depth to his disciples. While the parables themselves do not add anything new to Jesus’s ministry as we understand it already, Matthew sticks an addendum on the end of the section that raises concerns about the linear narrative he is presenting.

And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming into his own country he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son?”…But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house.” And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief. [13:53-55,57,58]

By Matthew’s own account, Jesus returned to Nazareth and performed many great miracles there after leaving Capernaum. A semantic argument could be made that this passage only states that Jesus was in his own country (Galilee) and not his city, and yet the bulk of his mission seems to have been centered in Galilee until he makes the decision to go to Jerusalem. Moreover, the people supposedly questioning his authority are naming his family as if they were intimately familiar with them, an unlikely assertion if we extend the possible range out to all of Galilee. Reading back over the section of the parables, they actually are tonally closest to Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Is Matthew is actually telling the same story twice, changing a few details to fill in time when Jesus’s activities and whereabouts were not known to his followers some five decades later?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Great Books: The Gospel According to Matthew (Part 3)

The first two parts of this essay can be read here and here.

After the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s gospel makes its third tonal shift, emphasizing Jesus as a worker of miracles. Though Matthew makes mention of Jesus’s abililty to heal the sick, it is not until Jesus came down from the mountain that we start getting specific examples of this happening. More importantly, each miracle that Matthew’s gospel covers in this section includes extra information that can shape our understanding of either who Jesus was or who the writer of the gospel wanted the reader to believe that he was. First, Matthew tells us, Jesus was approached by a leper who asks him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” [8:2] and Jesus “touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean” but added that he should, “say nothing to any one; but go and show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to the people” [8:3,4].

There are three pieces of information that leap out of that account beyond the healing itself. First, lepers were among the lowest of the low in the ancient world, afflicted by a disease that none could cure or even contain. Thus, even speaking to a leper would have been a socially radical act. Secondly, fear of contagion, difficult to assess as recently as one hundred years ago, would have made these people the literal embodiment of the word ‘untouchable’. Yet, Jesus not only healed him but did so by touching him, though in other miracles he is able to effect the same cure by merely outstretching his hand. Without suggesting any kind of prurient subtext, Jesus touches many people whom the Law would have forbidden. From this, we get the impression that the human touch, the act of crossing those boundaries and physically touching someone was understood to be a cornerstone of Jesus’s ministry on Earth.

Last, Jesus commanded him to keep the news of his healing a secret (tough work for a leper) but then also told him to make a sacrifice in the Temple as remanded by the Law to thank not Jesus, but God for the miracle. This is another early emphasis of God as the miracle worker and Jesus as the conduit for that miracle, a theme that recedes as the Gospel winds forward. It is also indicative of a whisper campaign that Jesus was conducting. He didn't want to attract too much attention where he was (for reasons that will be revealed in his final miracle of this period) but he did want the Temple to be aware of what he was doing and saying.

The second miracle concerns a centurion (authorized by Rome but not necessarily of Roman descent) who asked Jesus to heal his slave. Though Jesus offered to travel to the man’s house, the centurion explains to him that “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word and my servant will be healed” [8:8]. Jesus commended the man’s faith, proclaiming that “’not even in Israel have I found such faith’” [8:10] and Matthew goes on to quote Jesus as saying that his eventual followers will be drawn from many nations and not just the children of Israel. It is impossible to ignore that this kind of clear endorsement of Gentiles as potential entrants into the kingdom of heaven could not have been part of the early Nazarene tradition or there would not have been such a fuss raised about it later when Paul defies the Judean branch of the church to do precisely that. Thus, without cross-checking this event against the book of Mark (which is widely supposed to be the earliest and least adorned Gospel), we can suspect if not assume that this passage was written well after the Gentile issue had been settled and probably after the martyrdom of Paul himself around 64 CE.

The third act is more like a mini-miracle as Jesus went to Peter’s house and, finding his mother-in-law sick with a fever, he (again) “touched her with his hand” [8:14] and she was healed. That evening, Matthew tells us, “they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick” [8:16]. This effectively adds a new item to Jesus’s roster of services, the casting out of demons, and it is the one that gets him into trouble the quickest and the most often. It, however, is only the first in a series of expansions of power that Matthew describes for, after the evening of teaching, healing, and exorcism, Jesus did something even more remarkable.

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, “Save, Lord, we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” [8:23-27]

This passage (and its echo which appears later in the Gospel) is anomalous to some extent in relation to the well-defined parameters of Jesus’s established mission up to this point. It is fruitless to speculate on what specific metaphorical value that this story might have held as an additive myth to the believers of the time but its non sequitur quality feels like something authentic to the original tradition that somehow survived the narrative pruning of oral transmission.

The fifth miracle at Capernaum is also the final miracle at Capernaum. As Jesus traveled in the “country of the Gadarenes” he was confronted by two men, possessed by demons. Unlike Jesus’s earlier forays into the casting out of demons, which are listed as a matter of fact in a list of other things he did, these demons actually spoke to Jesus, saying, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God?” They begged him to cast them into a herd of swine nearby and when “they came out, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank and perished in the waters” [8:32]. When the herdsmen watching the sheep told the people of Capernaum what had happened, Matthew tells us that “all the city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood” [8:34].

This final miracle sticks out for two reasons. First, the demons recognized and identified Jesus as the “Son of God,” thus laying further claim in the narrative as to his special identity as the offspring of God above and beyond the child/parent relationship that all Israelites shared with the God of Abraham. Second, given the specific taboos against the eating of pork in the Jewish diet, it begs the question of who exactly this herd of pigs might have belonged to that their destruction would turn the city against Jesus. Was the destruction of this herd of pigs a social statement aimed at the non-Jews among them?

After Capernaum, Jesus, according to Matthew’s gospel, returned to “his own city” which we should probably assume is Nazareth. Unlike his miracles at Capernaum, Jesus’s healing and casting out of demons are met at every turn by critics, usually the Pharisees. It is also in Nazareth that Jesus called his next named disciple, Matthew the tax collector. As Jesus began to teach among Matthew’s peers, the Pharisees asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” [9:11]. Now, we can still understand why Jewish traditionalists would resent those among them who acted on behalf of Rome and the provincial authorities to collect taxes from them, but, who are these sinners to whom they refer? It could be a term to describe Gentiles living among them, but they already have a word for them: Gentiles. One can imagine that there might be an underclass of ethnically Jewish people who do not (or could not) follow the Law with its tradition of sacrifices for sheer want of money. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to appreciate how Jesus’s message of grace through forgiveness rather than through mediated sacrifice might have resonated through such a group of cultural dispossessed people.

Among the many miracles Jesus performed while being nagged by various nay-sayers, one, in particular, represents, again, an expansion of Jesus’s supernatural abilities. Matthew’s gospel recounts the story like this, saying:

While he was thus speaking to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand upon her, and she will live”…and when Jesus came to the ruler’s house, and saw the flute players and the crowd making a tumult, he said, “Depart; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose. [9:18,23-25]

While it is Lazarus who is most often remembered for being resurrected, it was in fact this ruler’s daughter who first receives this miracle. This lays the cornerstone for the Gospel’s most important miracle, Jesus’s own eventual resurrection after his crucifixion by the Romans. With this final tool in his carpenter’s belt of miracles, Jesus announced to his disciples that “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” And with that, Jesus launched his plan to go viral…1st century BCE style.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Great Books: The Gospel According to Matthew (Part 2)

Part One of this essay can be read here.

By Matthew's account, Jesus embarked on the first public leg of his ministry. Having discovered that, in his absence, John the Baptist had been arrested by Herod Archelaus (son of Herod the Great), Jesus moved back into familiar territory. Stopping first at his home in Nazareth, Jesus then moved on to Capernaum and began to use John’s ministerial tagline, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” While it can be assumed that Jesus was preaching to a great many people, Matthew mentions four followers, by name, who he acquired as followers during this phase of his ministry.

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew, his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately, they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. [4:18-22]

On a purely metaphoric level, this passage is clear in its meaning. Common men, once presumably content in their trade, heard Jesus’s message and left not only their livelihood but their families in order the hopes of contributing to something more meaningful. It was from this passage (among others) that the symbol of the fish became synonymous with Christianity for the first several hundred years of its existence. On a more pragmatic level, though, we can also see that this behavior would be very disruptive to a culture defined by its social cohesion. Matthew reinforces this conflict between serving the kingdom of heaven and serving one’s family several times in the course of this gospel and, from this, we can infer that the new Nazarene sect of Judaism was seen by many as anathema to Jewish cultural ties; not only in its haphazard defense of the taboos that comprised many of its laws, but also in its propensity to lure people out of the social units that had not only nurtured them, but also still depended upon their labor for survival.

From this point, Matthew writes, “he went all about Galilee, teaching in the synogogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among his people” [4:23]. As word of his teaching spread, we are told, people began to come from every corner of the Jewish world to be healed and receive Jesus’s teaching. When those crowds reached a certain mass, Jesus “went up on the mountain” and delivered Matthew’s first account of his teachings; a collection of wisdom saying known collectively as The Sermon on the Mount.

Before this sermon, we know a great deal about Jesus’s mission (teach and heal) but very little about his actual message beyond the one he appropriated in John’s absence. Here, Jesus took his first steps in articulating answers to the key questions raised by his warning to repent. He began with a series of nine sparse but radical suppositions about the nature of the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. [5:3-11]

Hearkening back, for just a moment, to Aristotle’s treatise on happiness (Nicomachean Ethics), we recall that, for the Greeks, blessedness is a state where good living is met by good fortune and is given, somewhat capriciously by the Fates. Consider that in contrast with Jesus’s proclamation here that blessedness is something that is promised by God to those who would seek righteousness, practice humility, offer mercy, and seek peace. It is no longer a matter of making the right amount of sacrifices to the right gods and hoping for the best outcome. Though life may (and, for his audience, likely will) continue to ravage a person’s body, blessedness is never withdrawn as it is given not on a whim but as payment for the fulfillment of a contract with God.

Though Jesus instructs his listeners to “think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets” [5:17], he muddies those waters with his later assertion that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” [5:20]. This begs the question, then, that if the Pharisees, who were known for their strict obedience to the Law, are not righteous enough to enter the kingdom of heaven, how may any person hope to achieve a state of righteousness that exceeds them?

In response, Jesus selected a number of the fundamental tenets of Jewish law (many of them taken directly from the Ten Commandments) and inverted the application of a worldly kind of sense to their fulfillment. Thus:

You have heard that it was said to the men of old, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment…You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say unto you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart…You have heard it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. [5:21,22,27,28,38,39]

Seen through the eyes of convention, what Jesus asks here is impossible. Though he offered many examples of how to behave more righteously than those considered to be so at the time, he never addressed the improbability of anyone having such mastery over her person that she should never harbor the slightest anger towards those who have wronged her nor of a man so in command of his own impulses that he should never allow feelings of lust for someone other than his wife to so much as enter his mind. It is little wonder that, upon Jesus’s completion of the sermon, Matthew notes that “the crowds were astonished at his teaching for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” [7:28-29].

Before moving on to the next period of Jesus’s life and the next tonal shift in Matthew’s account of it, we should probably close with a word or two more about the Sermon on the Mount. These three chapters of Matthew are dense with information and, indeed, entire books could and have been written on these passages alone. Matthew’s account of the Sermon, stripped as it is from any flowery language or obvious narrative agenda, is a very tempting place to look for the actual teachings of Jesus the Nazarene who pre-existed Jesus the Christ, whose message was shaped (and some might say re-shaped) by many invisible hands. While there is no reason to assume that the text is captured verbatim from Jesus’s own mouth, it does feel like a collection of sayings that might easily have been passed through an oral tradition that predated the written one. It is also noticeably lacking in assertions of a special status of divinity for Jesus himself. Two passages briefly skirt the idea in a provocative way.

Oh what man of you, if his son asks him for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him? [7:9-11]

Not every one who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” [7:21-23]

In the first passage, the text points to a universal and co-equal sibling relationship between Jesus and his audience, where humanity (of which Jesus is a part) plays the part of the child and God, that of the father. The second, in contrast, suggests that upon the day of human judgment by God, Jesus will play a special role, a first among equals, of confirming whether or not those seeking grace used the authority of his name to do God’s will with righteousness or for their own benefit. Given that, at this point in Matthew’s narrative, Jesus hadn’t given anyone the authority to do anything except listen to him, it is again tempting to believe that this, unlike the earlier passage, was retrofitted on to this screen capture image of Jesus’s early ministry.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Great Books: The Gospel According to Matthew (Part One)

Great Books: The Gospel According to Matthew
Author: Unknown, most likely written between 33 and 100 CE
Place: Uncertain

This essay will reference from the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament.

Trying to read any portion of the New Testament as a work unto itself is, in some ways, a thankless effort. In reading The Gospel According to Matthew, we are inevitably tempted to wander off into queries on how this account of Jesus’s life mirrors and contrasts with the other gospels and how those similarities and differences might reflect on the somewhat murky chronology of their assembly. That and other conversations, fascinating as they may be, could and have filled the pages of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of books; some of them, very long. In the interest of providing meaningful commentary on Matthew’s gospel that does not overtax a casual reader, perhaps more interested in headlines than details, we shall restrain our scrutiny to the text itself.

The Gospel According to Matthew opens with a genealogy that traces a line from Abraham through David and directly to Jesus, “who is called Christ” [1:16]. This is an easy bit of the text to gloss over as it employs a very static formula that turns into “unfamiliar name was the father of another unfamiliar name” except when one or more of those names is already familiar to us from a conspicuous appearance in the Torah. While repetitive, the section does emphasize the plausible historicity of the Jewish tradition, especially considered in contrast to other oppressed peoples throughout that same region. In having established writing as one of the central elements of their culture very early, the Jewish peoples were able to maintain a core identity that is on display here across forty-two generations of human existence. It also neatly divides that timeline into three eras; from Abraham to David, from David to the first Diaspora, and, from there, to the birth of Jesus. Forty-two generations also carries a specific weight in relation to the question of Jesus’s divinity as it is the product of six, the number of man, and seven, the number of God.

Matthew’s Gospel is characterized by a number of tonal shifts that take place in its narrative. The first section, starting from the birth up through the family’s return to Galilee, is mythic and referential. It begins with a problem.

When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband, Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” [1:18-21]

Second, a group of wise men from the East arrive at the court of Herod the Great, asking as to the whereabouts of the king of the Jews that had recently been born. Matthew’s account is interesting in that it assumes Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem as happening before the arrival of the wise men and omits many of the details of the Nativity as it is commonly understood. It is Herod, through the knowledge of his scholars and scribes, who deduces the location of the child and sends them directly to Bethlehem to find him and then report back so that he, too, might worship him. Matthew then backtracks a little, indicating that when “they had heard the king, they went their way; and, lo, the star they had seen in the East went before them” [2:9]. Upon their arrival, there is no mention of a manger but describes them as “going into the house [where] they saw the child with Mary his mother” [2:11]. After worshipping the child with gifts, the wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod’s court and left the country on the downlow.

Immediately, after, it is Joseph, again, who is visited in his dreams by an angel of the Lord, telling him to go to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous intent. After they flee, Herod orders that all the male children under the age of two in Bethlehem be murdered to ensure that no king should emerge from their number and threaten his authority. After Herod dies, Joseph is visited yet again in a dream by an angel of the Lord who tells him to return to Israel and then, upon their arrival, clarifies his instructions in another dream that they should dwell in Galilee to avoid the influence of Herod’s (Herod Archelaus) son.

This is where Matthew’s account of Jesus’s childhood comes to a close. In comparison to what Luke (a masterful writer with a more evolved agenda) has to say about Jesus’s birth and childhood, Matthew’s vision has the narrative depth of a View-Master reel. No effort is spent on sculpting character development as the players are moved from point to point by stars and dreams. It also makes no apologies for the improbability of its plot, but, instead, points to each element as the fulfillment of a specific prophecy; as if to say, “If it seems implausible, it is as the prophets had decreed it would be.”

With the introduction of John the Baptist in the third chapter, Matthew’s Gospel makes its first strong tonal shift from dispassionate myth-building to a supernatural realism enriched by physical and behavioral details. John’s central message (“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”) brought many out to the river Jordan where he would baptize them and allow them to confess their sins. Matthew gives us two really rich descriptions of John the Baptist that bear consideration.

Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey…But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. [3:4,7-9]

The first description of what John was wearing is notable because nowhere before it in the text are we treated to a description of someone’s outfit. This indicates awareness within Matthew’s intended audience of who John was and, perhaps, some latent memory of his actual time on Earth. Secondly, the author(s) of Matthew is not known for rhetorical flourishes when supplying dialogue for someone so it is tempting to believe that his reproach of the Pharisees and Sadducees may have lived beyond his untimely death and that some small portion of it wound up here. It is also worth noting that the Gospel of Matthew begins early laying out a case for the legitimacy for Gentile conversion with statements like these.

Then, Matthew tells us, “Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him” [3:13] and, John is ultimately deferential to Jesus, suggesting that he needed “to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” [3:14]. Indicating that his own spiritual journey need follow a certain path, Jesus persuaded John to baptize him. The result was noteworthy in what it does and does not say.

And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” [3:16,17]

The fact that the Spirit of God is now making personal appearances instead of offering guidance in dreams is a shift from the earlier tales of Jesus’s childhood. What is remarkable about Matthew’s account of this story is that Jesus alone is implied to be privy to this vision. If there was a visible reaction from either John or the crowd around him as to the profundity of Jesus’s baptism, no mention is made of it.

From there, Jesus was “led by the Spirit” (presumably the same one that descended upon him at his baptism) “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” [4:1]. Much like his experience with John the Baptist, Jesus’s trials are to be fought within his own mind and spirit and away from the eyes of others. In line with Matthew’s focus on the Torah, Jesus rebuts each temptation presented to him with scripture and, in time, banishes the devil from his presence and is “ministered to” by angels sent to aid him. These experiences and external events would soon come together to launch Jesus’s ministry in a fashion more public than these initial, more personal revelations.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Author Sketch: "Matthew"

Author Sketch: “Matthew”

Only one step shy of the mystery surrounding, “Who wrote the book of Love?” is the question, “Who wrote the book of the Gospel of Matthew?” Theologians and historians have spent thousands of years arguing this very point and the answer with which one comes to a kind of peace has more to do with worldview than the imperviousness of any given body of evidence.

In the absence of an historical accord, the best we can hope for is to sketch out a continuum of the possibilities. The first set of hurdles over which we must leap is in regards to when was the gospel written? The gospel itself never claims to be a first hand account of Jesus’s life and, indeed, given marked shifts in tone between the various sections, it reads more like an accumulation of myths, second-hand accounts, and accepted teachings that might have developed within a particular sect of the early church. Some critics, perhaps more interested in the gospel’s literal veracity, might place it as being written sometime directly after the Resurrection. However, there is also considerable evidence pointing to a much later codification of the gospel, late in the first century after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. So, reasonably, we can place the penning of this work somewhere between 33 and 100 CE.

The question of who exactly is this Matthew is a thornier one altogether. Matthew’s continued usage of the phrase “kingdom of heaven” in contrast to the other gospels’ reliance on “kingdom of God” has suggested to some that its author is be, in fact, Jewish due to his reluctance to write the name of God. This suspicion is compounded by Matthew’s more frequent referencing (relative to the other gospels) of verses from the Torah to show Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy.

Conversely, while there is no original manuscript to confirm this, many also suspect that Matthew was originally written in Greek which tells us something not only about its author but its intended audience. Though it was likely written by a Jew (or Jews) with an intimate understanding of Temple Law, that person (or people) was also educated in the universal language of scholarship, Greek, and transmitted the beliefs contained within to a group of people expected to have both a knowledge of the law and Greek writing.

That same author expresses obvious prejudices towards various groups while painting others with a less critical brush. The Kings Herod and the Pharisees are made the clear villains of the piece while the Romans, who actually crucified Jesus, are shown at every turn to be, at worst, unwitting participants in a tragedy beyond their understanding or, at best, actually sympathetic to Jesus’s teaching and, in some cases, his ministry. From this, we may infer that Matthew’s writer was still under threat of Roman persecution and did not (unlike Paul) wish to portray Christianity as critical of or subversive to Roman authority.

Short of the invention of time-travel, we will likely never know with complete certainty who wrote the book of Matthew or fully under what circumstances it was created. Still, the version of Jesus’s life that it tells is the first one to greet us as we approach the New Testament and approximates, if not perfectly reports, a good deal of what we know about Jesus’s own beliefs and teachings. Though we place a high premium on certainty in this empirical day and age, what, after all, is the fun of a mystery religion without a little mystery?