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.

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