Summary Matthew Chapter 4
The two main themes of this chapter were the temptation of Jesus and the calling of the first disciples. There is no obvious link between the two; the first really belongs with the previous chapter; or does it serve as a bridge between the baptism and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry? Think about it: Jesus gets baptised, goes off into the desert to fast and pray, resists temptation, and so now is ready to start preaching. There is a progression there. Do the temptations reveal anything about Jesus? I believe the purpose is to demonstrate that he was not interested in power, whether over nature, or political power. Perhaps the question here is why this is in Matthew and not Mark?
Ehrman and Mack and Kloppenborg would all say that it’s because this story was in Q, and so Mark wasn’t aware of it. Great! Problem solved! Now we can knock off for the day and all go out for ice cream. See, this is the trap of looking the gospels as texts; as containing some units but not others, as if there were a specific number of building blocks available for the evangelists to use. Perhaps there was another load of blocks added for Matthew and Luke, blocks not available to Mark. But the sense is that these extra blocks, Q, existed when Mark was writing. In fact, Mack insists that the Q material is the oldest of all the stuff in the NT. He claims it predates even Paul.
But instead of looking at the contents of the gospels–including Q for the sake of argument–as blocks of text as the majority of biblical scholars do, what happens if we look at the ideas contained in the blocks? To be fair, Ehrman does this in How Jesus Became God. Well, he sort of does. By background and training, he’s still a biblicist (?. If there is such a thing). By this I mean that he still doesn’t quite take the step back to see the forest; he’s too busy assembling and/or re-arranging the trees.
The temptations show us that Jesus resisted power. Now ask yourself: was the wonder-worker in the first half of Mark strike you as someone who was interested in power? Especially temporal, political power? Isn’t this something that would be of more interest to the anointed one? In Jewish thought, the Messiah was, above all, a political figure. But, thematically, the idea that Jesus was the Christ really only shows up starting in Chapter 8 of Mark. Eight of the eleven uses of the word “christos” show up between Chapter 8 and Chapter 16. It’s used only three times in Chapters 1-7, and the first is in 1:1, in which we are told that this is the beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ. To my mind, that barely counts.
So what’s my point? That the idea of the Christ was a later addition to the Jesus myth. As such, there is no reason, thematically, to have the wonder-worker make a showy point about refusing power. If Jesus was a Cynic sage, as Mack believes, the last thing he would have been interested in would be political power. As such, the offer would not be tempting. Yes, the story could be designed to show that, but then the temptation story loses much of it’s impact. If someone offered me a bag of wet leaves, I would have no trouble turning it down. Why? Because I really don’t want a bag of wet leaves. The offer doesn’t tempt me in the least. I derive no credit from declining. Now, if someone offered me a $million, that would be tempting. I could certainly use a $million, and a certain amount of benefit would accrue to me by virtue of the money. I would garner some credit for declining that offer.
So if Jesus were a Cynic sage–a true one–the offer of the kingdoms of the world would have no allure. There is the story of Alexander the Great and Diogenes, who was the first Cynic sage (he’s the guy with the lantern looking for the honest man; he’s also the guy depicted on the inside of Led Zeppelin 4; but i think I’ve said that…) Alexander came across Diogenes while the latter was in his bath, and was so impressed that he told Diogenes to ask for anything and Alexander would grant it. The sage’s response was “Stand out of my sun”, because Alexander was blocking the sun where he stood. One could argue that the temptation of Jesus was meant to one-up Diogenes.
Perhaps. But this story of Jesus lacks the wit of the story of Diogenese. That witty retort to power was the point of the story. The story of Jesus is, to my mind, too earnest. The wit is not there. Then there’s the point that it’s the enemy, the slanderer, rather than an earthly king making the offer. That changes the complexion of the story completely. We’re now talking about Infinite Power, not a favour granted by a temporal ruler. It’s such a difference of degree that it becomes, I think, a difference in kind.
What I’m trying to say is that this is temptation at a supernatural, if not cosmic level. As such, this is not the sort of thing a Cynic sage would be mixed up with. Rather, this is a temptation for a divine being, a son of God, however the term is to be understood. As such, I would suspect that it’s the sort of story that would have begun to be told after the Christ cult had become the dominant theme for the followers of Jesus. Mack makes a big deal out of the here-and-now sort of things in Q, the behavioural codes, the attitudes, the Beattitudes. A supernatural temptation on a cosmic scale does not fit into such a milieu. Rather, this story, I think, developed some time later. It most likely developed later than Mark, which is why the story of the temptations is not in Mark. At the least, the story is certainly later than the early part of the Jesus movement.
As such, it was, most likely, not part of Q.
Ehrman’s How Jesus Become God lays out a very plausible course of development for the deification of Jesus. For Paul, the apotheosis occurred at the Resurrection. Later, it moved backward to the baptism, as we saw in Mark. Finally, for Matthew, it started from before birth. For John, it started from before Time.
So Mark put it at the baptism. He had Jesus fasting and being tempted. But, at that point, the story(ies) of what the temptations involved had not been composed. That came later. My suspicion is that Matthew was the author. That, at least, is my working hypothesis. We’ll return to this as we progress. For now, suffice it to say that it’s no longer just Jesus being tempted, as it was in Mark; rather, it’s Jesus face-to-face with nothing less than the Enemy himself.
That’s the first transition in Chaper 4. The second is the transition to the public ministry. There are again two aspects of this transition. The first is to note how differently Matthew handles the initial miracles–or wonders. He does not make them the centerpiece of Jesus’ debut. Rather, he sort of mentions them in passing, lumping them together, brushing past them in a very minimalist fashion. Tied in with this is the emphasis given to the towns of the Peoples (fka Gentiles, or nations). Syria and the Decapolis are listed along with the more common place names of Judea and Galilee. The audience, I think, has changed significantly between Mark and Matthew. By the time the latter wrote, I suspect that most new members of the Jesus movement were of pagan, rather than Jewish origin. The point here is that the wonder-worker has begun to fade into the background. This, I think, is why the temptation story is here and not in Mark.
The more important piece of this is the kingdom, but there is rather less to say at the moment–but that will change. The question is that we have two sets of brothers leaving their homes and their families to follow Jesus. Is this meant to indicate what the kingdom will require of people if they wish to be included? Reading this, I’m not so sure that the whatever connection there was in Mark between Jesus beginning to preach that the kingdom was at hand and the four brothers leaving home and family has faded–to some degree–for Matthew. This is, to be clear, only a sense that I get, one that is not entirely supported in the text. I think it has to do with the way we get through this section rather quickly in order to get to the Sermon on the Mount. There is sort of an introductory feel to this section, as if it’s here because it has to be here because Mark had it, and it needs to be there for the context. But we will look at the how the idea of the kingdom continues to develop.
And, btw, what about the idea that James the son of Zebedee is the same person as James the (half-)brother of Jesus. Intriguing, no?