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.