Summary Matthew Chapter 5

This is probably the fourth or fifth draft of this. I lost track. This is an enormously important chapter, and I wanted to do it as much justice as possible. I’m still not completely happy, but this addresses the issues raised in the chapter, if not all of their greater ramifications.

The sentiments of the Beatitudes are revolutionary, representing a radical shift in what will become Western thought. In fact, the sentiments expressed here are perhaps one of the foundation stones of Western Civilisation. Of course, many cultures have a code of social justice; such a code is enshrined in the Hebrew Scriptures, and such prescriptions date back (at least) to the Code of Hammurabi. But what we have here is something different. Here we have not so much exhortations to help the needy, but flat-out statements that those in need will receive their recompense. This is to say that their suffering per se is worthy of reward. To the best of my knowledge, this had never been promised before. It certainly was never part of Greek or Roman thought, and even Marcus Aurelius, two hundred years later, had nothing comparable.

In one of his books that I read, JD Crossan said that apocalyptic prophecy was the last refuge of the politically oppressed. As pitiless as the conqueror was, apocalyptic prophecy let the subject peoples think, “Oh yeah? Well, you’re gonna get yours when our G/god comes and straightens things out.” And there is no doubting the appeal. Revenge fantasies against, say, a horrible boss are nearly universal, I suspect. (Or is that just saying something about me?) But this, the idea of those who mourn finding comfort is a different sort of prediction, both in outlook and in those it addresses. This is no longer a promise just to a political or cultural underclass. The poor, the mourning, those hungering for justice were universal classes in the ancient world; and, unfortunately, in the modern world as well. These categories encompass people of all nations, all races, all religions. As such, it’s not addressed to a specific audience in terms of ethnic composition in the way that Jewish apocalyptic writing was addressed to Jews, and couched in Jewish religion and culture the way the Book of Daniel was. Rather, this is the practical application of Paul’s “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free”, etc.

So it is not an ‘us vs. them’ sort of thing the way apocalyptic writing tends to be. And the other aspect—perhaps the more interesting aspect—is that we are not told when this recompense will be received, or when it will occur, Are we to presume that this part of the kingdom? We were told in 4:23 that Jesus was teaching the good news of the kingdom. Of course, we know when all this will happen. It will occur in the afterlife, which is to say the kingdom of God, or capital-h Heaven, when we have died and been judged worthy of eternal life. But where has Matthew said this? Indeed, where did Mark or Paul say this? What right have we to make this inference? And by ‘right”, I mean, where’s our textual support for this conclusion? Even later in this chapter, when Matthew talks about Gehenna, he does not provide an alternative. So what is our proof? From what I recall, the only support for this comes in Mark 9, and again in Mark 10:30. In Mark 9, he talks about “entering the life” rather than being thrown into Gehenna. I found it curious that Matthew omitted the part about the life here, although he will repeat most of this when he recapitulates the content of Mark 9 in this next chapter.

Now, we are told that the poor in spirit and the persecuted will be rewarded with the kingdom of heaven, and the meek shall inherit the earth. Is there a contradiction, or at least an inconsistency here?  If kingdom of the heavens can be understood as Heaven, what happens to the meek? When do they get the earth? In this life? Or in the next?

This is where we have to stop and ask what Matthew and his community believed at this point. Mark spoke briefly and vaguely about “the kingdom” and “the life”, the latter being opposed to being thrown into Gehenna. Because to this point, we have encountered exactly two references to anything resembling the concept of eternal life. Both were in Mark. One was when Jesus spoke of a sin against the sacred breath as the only sin that would lead to “eternal judgement”, the presumption that the judgement would not be positive. The other is in Mark 10:30, where Jesus says that one of the rewards for following Jesus faithfully will be eternal life. That’s it, More, the idea of eternity is not big in Matthew; he uses the word sparingly.

So are we justified to infer that we’re talking about eternal life? On the one hand, it sure seems like it; OTOH, maybe not so much. But if not eternal life, then what does it mean to be given entry into the kingdom of the heavens, or to inherit the earth? I certainly don’t have the answer, and I’m not sure I even an answer for this. But I don’t know that anyone else does, either; at least, no one has an answer that doesn’t presuppose the way that later generations–ourselves included–came to understand this.

In a nutshell, what I am saying is that the text is rather falling between two stools here. The idea of eternal life exists–perhaps. For the record, we are assuming that the use of the term in Mark 10:30 is not a later interpolation. This is always a possibility, but since the burden of proof is on me to demonstrate this, and I simply cannot, we will work under the assumption that the words date to the author of Mark. So the idea does exist, but I have to suggest that it’s still in a very attenuated form. There is the possibility that by the time Matthew wrote this, the idea of eternal life, and that eternal life and the kingdom of the heavens were synonymous, were so commonplace that it could be taken for granted, However, the burden of proof is to show that this is true, and I do not think any sort of reasonable case can be made to demonstrate this. Use of the term is still too sketchy. Yes, the truth could be somewhere in the middle, but saying that does not solve anything. The exact middle? Because if it’s closer to one side than the other, we’ve gained nothing with the attempt to compromise.

So now what? While I believe we cannot say with any certainty what Matthew meant by “kingdom of the heavens”, or if he believed in eternal life, we have to admit that the idea was around. Its seed had been planted. What I’m saying is this idea–and probably many others, are still developing.

If you agree with that statement, there is a host of very powerful implications that go with that.

In How Jesus Became God, Ehrman suggested that the main theme of Mark was the establishment of Jesus’ identity. That being accomplished, Matthew was free to focus on Jesus’ teaching. Note that what Ehrman is saying, perhaps without being aware of it, and certainly without being aware of the implications, is that the message of Jesus was still developing. Mark had to do part; Matthew did the next part. That means that Mark’s message was incomplete. More needed to be added because the message was still developing. So Ehrman agrees with me on that.

By starting with the birth narrative and adding that Jesus was attended by angels after the temptations have removed all doubt about Jesus’ identity. More, Matthew has established that Jesus was a divine entity, in some meaning of the word. Given this, Matthew then brushes over Mark’s initial exorcisms and healings in summary fashion. As a result, he truly begins Jesus’ ministry with Chapter 5 makes it very clear that Matthew will focus on Jesus’ teaching.

By making this the focus of his gospel, Matthew, for the moment, is not addressing the ways that Jesus’ teaching interacted with his divinity. Matthew has gone back to a human Jesus, a wise man, a wise teacher. Yes, we know that Jesus was divine, but this divinity has become latent, rather than explicit. In fact, the Jesus in Mark is perhaps more explicitly divine than the Jesus of Matthew. The one found in Mark is always casting out demons, healing people, and performing wonders. Since Matthew “goes back” to the teaching of Jesus, this could be adduced as further proof–as if any were needed–for the existence of Q. Matthew “went back” to the human Jesus and his teachings precisely because of Q. Matthew had access to this trove of information on what Jesus said that was not available to Mark, for reason or reasons unspecified.

But we’ll get back to that. How and why Mark missed Q is an elephant in the room that no one is addressing.

In the chapter, we go from the Beatitudes to the….what? Analogies? Comparisons? Wisdom sayings? How exactly do we classify the statements that Jesus makes about the salt of the earth and the city on the hill? I find it interesting that Matthew inserts the analogies about the salt of the earth, and the city on the hill in here. Contextually, they don’t really fit. They are sort of stuck in here, not relating either to the Beatitudes or to what comes next. Also, this is a case where Matthew did not successfully integrate Triple Tradition material–stuff common to Matthew, Mark, and Luke–into the place where Mark locates it. This is supposed to be a hallmark of Matthew, but he didn’t get it right here. Mark has Jesus saying this to the disciples, in a more intimate setting, rather than to a great crowd. And, honestly, I believe that Mark’s context is more appropriate. This sounds like a pep-talk for his close followers, convincing them that they are worthy of the charge Jesus is entrusting to them. But, that’s an opinion, and worth just about that much. More important is that, perhaps counterintuitively, I think this clumsy context does a lot to establish them as authentic sayings of Jesus. Why do I say this? Because it makes almost no sense to include them otherwise. Why is he telling members of the crowd, as a whole, that they are the salt of the earth, and the city on the hill? As they exist here, they really feel like something culled from a list of out-of-context sayings. Something like Q, IOW.

Then there is the famous bit about how Jesus claims he will not drop a single iota from the Law. This passage is often cited to demonstrate Matthew’s bona fides as a Jew. What is not said, is that, having made this proclamation, Jesus proceeds to do exactly what he said he wouldn’t: he starts editng the Law. No divorce; lust in the heart = adultery; hating your brother = murder; no more eye for an eye. Here we reflect back to what I said about the Beatitudes: these explications of the law feel like Jesus is expanding the scope of those who are subject to the Law. Yes, he’s talking about the lessons of the Law, talking about “our forefathers”, but he is showing how they apply now, and how they are no longer the exclusive prerogative, purview, of Jews. Jesus here, I think, is speaking to ex-pagans. My pet theory is that the author of this gospel was a god-fearer, a pagan who was deeply interested in Jewish traditions and Law, in particular in the Jewish moral code. Even though he says “our forefathers said…” this is an allegorical use of the term. But, this is a pet theory; I don’t have much in the way of concrete proof. Yet. But look at how this all works together, how Jesus is creating a universal message, one whose scope goes beyond the tight constraints of a Jews-only milieu.

Note that I said “Jesus is creating a universal message”. Of course, that is probably incorrect. More properly, Matthew is putting these words into Jesus’ mouth.Why? Because an expanded message, one that is directed as much–or more–to pagans than to Jews is not appropriate for the historical Jesus who lived in the 20s/30s of the Common Era. But such a message to pagans is wholely appropriate for an evangelist writing in the mid-80s CE. And here is where the idea of a developing message is crucial: if the Beatitudes were fixed in the 30s and transmitted via Q, then the message was set and did not change. Matthew simply went back to this older material and merged it with Mark to create a new gospel.

But is that what Matthew did? Is Jesus preaching to primarily pagans? or primarily to Jews here? That is the heart of the matter, If he’s preaching to Jews, then this message most likely dates back to the 30s and was transmitted via Q. If he’s preaching to pagans here, then the message was, likely, created after that, most likely starting some time after the destruction of the Temple. What I believe we have here is a scenario in which Jesus is ostensibly preaching to Jews, but Matthew is in fact writing for pagans.

So, if I’m correct in this, then Q becomes a casualty. That is what is at stake here. Well, it’s one thing. Now I have no illusions that I have constructed a convincing case that Jesus/Matthew is addressing pagans. I have done no such thing. What I hope, however, is that I’ve started. I hope I’ve put the seed in your mind. Now, whether it grows will depend on how well I tend to it from here. But I’ve put my stake in the ground. As always, I reserve the right to eat my words at a later point. I’m hoping I won’t have to do that, but time will tell.

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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 December 30, 2014, in Chapter 5, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel, Q, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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