Summary Matthew Chapter 3

The whole chapter reads like a single piece which is why I couldn’t find a reasonable place to break.

This could be called the “Chapter of John the Dunker”. This chapter contains his story, and he is the main character in the piece, despite Jesus’ eventual appearance.  In many ways, the story is very similar to that told by Mark, including the quote from Isaiah, the call to repent, and the the camel-skin clothes; I just realized the diet of locusts and wild honey was omitted. Why? And the call to repent was significant because of the way it was mistranslated by St Jerome, with enormous consequences for the development of the western church.

But the big thing I noticed was that the story was considerably longer than in Mark. The reason for the added length is John’s railing at the Pharisees and the new villain, the Sadducees.  Where did this come from? Burton Mack says it came from Q. Never mind that Q was supposedly the sayings of Jesus. This is part of Q. And, even more, Mack can detect that this is from a later stratum of Q; it’s not part of the original material. He probably explained all of this in The Lost Gospel of Q, but I read that a number of years ago, long before I had enough background for it to make sense. Or to be able to explain why it did not make sense. As for why this is part of Q, well, the main reason is that it wasn’t in Mark. So it had to be Q.


There is an enormous circularity about the Q argument. How do we know it’s Q? Because it wasn’t in Mark. Why wasn’t it in Mark? Because it was part of Q. I can think of almost no reason to suppose that the Q people (as he calls them) added a saying of John the Baptist. That does not make sense from an historical point of view. Per Mack, the Q people are the true heirs of the historical Jesus, who was a sort of counter-cultural sage, on the model of Diogenes the Cynic (the guy with the lantern and staff looking for an honest man on the inside of the Led Zeppelin IV album cover, among other places). This being the case, why would they be interested in the doings of the Baptist, who was firmly in the Jewish tradition, which the Q people rejected. Rather, this is a great example of how Matthew expanded the role of John; he flat-out makes John the herald of the mightier one. Mark implied this, but Matthew makes it explicit. If I were to do Mark again, knowing what I know now, I would have spent a lot more time on this.

But the story was in Mark; that Matthew found it there and took it from Mark is made very clear by the camel-skin clothes and leather belt and the quote from Isaiah.  The details are too exact to be the result of tapping into the same oral tradition. Matthew then puts words into John’s mouth to make sure that we are well aware that John was Jesus’ herald, and that John was well aware of his role, that he accepted it, and that he was pleased to fill that role.  That is a clear example of Matthew tying Jesus into the ancient Jewish tradition. Now, Matthew may have done this because he was a Jew himself, and he wanted to feel that he was fulfilling his ancestral destiny, and not abrogating it.  I have often thought of Mark as a journalist, Luke as a novelist, John as a theologian, and Matthew as a rabbi (an anachronism for the first century, but you get the idea). As such, I believe it would have been important for Matthew to make the connection more explicit, and he does exactly that.

And let’s face it: “Brood of vipers” is a great line. It’s high drama, pungent, and nasty in a good way.  And here we have a bit of a contradiction: if Matthew wants to affirm his Jewish roots, why condemn these exemplars of that tradition? This leads us through a very sticky wicket. Since I’ve been reading Mack’s book, I’ve been thinking about this whole thing a lot. Part of it, I believe, has a lot to do with the timing. Both Mark and, to a lesser extent, Matthew portray an idea that had areas of contention with the established Judaism of the day. However, both of these men wrote after the fall of Jerusalem, when the world of Jesus no longer existed. I think, to no small extent, the “anti-establishment” aspects of Jesus, or here John, are a function of the fact that the tipping point had been reached and more new converts were pagans, so there was a conscious distancing of the Jesus movement from at least the Jewish establishment that had gone into open revolt from Rome. We talked about this in Mark: he did everything he could to cover up the fact that Jesus was executed by the Romans. And so here John, as a proxy for Jesus, has to have his shot at the establishment figures.

I’m going to toss something out here. I said I’ve often thought of Matthew as a rabbi; Mack, and others, also stress Matthew’s Jewish roots, his care to insist that not one iota (jot) of the Law had been abrogated. What if Matthew wasn’t a Jew by birth, but one of the God-fearers, the pagans who congregated in synagogues to learn about Judaism. What we could be seeing is the enthusiasm of a convert as Matthew became fascinated with the Jewish tradition as encapsulated in the Torah and the Prophets. We need to keep in mind that there is what Mack calls the Christ cult, of which Paul is the best example. As a pagan, Matthew would have been comfortable with a lot of the pagan ideas we discussed while reading 1 Corinthians; as a God-fearer, the joining of the two traditions could easily have been exciting for him. Recall my suggestion that it was the idea that the Law had been superseded by faith that may have been Paul’s “road to Damascus” moment. Perhaps something similar was true for Matthew.

Because let’s be absolutely clear about this: by the time we get to Matthew’s gospel, the Christ myth, the Christ cult–as opposed to Jesus followers–has won out.  The joining of the two was Mark’s goal; he was, perhaps, only partly successful in his day. For Matthew, OTOH, the question has been answered: Jesus was the Christ, from the moment–or even before the moment–of his birth. Think about Paul claiming that God had chosen him from the time he was in his mother’s womb (Gal 1:15).  So, too, was Jesus, having been conceived by the sacred breath entering into Mary. So the divine is at work, as we noted in Chapters 1 & 2. I suppose the similarity between Paul and Jesus in this case is most likely coincidental; however, we will be wise to keep it in mind as we go forward.

Have we gone far enough? One theme that needs to be mentioned is the idea of the “destined wrath”. The interesting thing is that this was not mentioned in Mark, with all his apocalyptic premonitions. He did not talk about a day of wrath, or a coming wrath. But Paul did. He brought it up in Thessalonians 2:16, and the word appears frequently in Romans, which we have not read. So, we get two semi-Pauline references in the first three chapters. The one about the mother’s womb is admittedly tenuous; the idea of coming wrath is pretty clear. Now, this shows up in Luke, and so Mack includes it in “The Complete Book of Q”. My apologies, but I find it very hard to accept that this was in Q. The theme is simply used too frequently in Paul; as such, the likelihood is much greater that Matthew would have encountered it via the Christ cult than from the Q people. And this latter assumes that both Q and Q people–as Mack calls them–existed, neither of which are in any sense proven. Mack seems prone to these sorts of conjectures-taken-as-fact.

IMO, the existence of Q is highly suspect, which means that there were no Q people, either. At some point in the fairly near future, I am going to have to stop and assess possible progression sequences that will take us from Jesus to Matthew. A big part of this will be related to Q.  For now, let’s register my skepticism that the idea of a coming wrath came from Q and leave it at that. And let’s move on to Chapter 4.

About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on October 18, 2014, in Chapter 3, General / Overview, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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