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.

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