Matthew Chapter 8:1-13

1 Καταβάντος δὲ αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τοῦ ὄρους ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ ὄχλοι πολλοί.

When he descended from the mountain, a great crowd followed him.

This closely parallels the narrative of Mark. Of course the latter was making constant references to the size of the crowds, and the amazement of those who heard him, which we got at the end of the last chapter. In fact, this piece fits right into Mark 3:13; I commented at the time that we were at the place in Mark where the Sermon on the Mount should have been. This is why I say that it’s pretty obvious, when looked at with the eyes of an historian, that Mark is the older story. There have been those who suggested that Matthew wrote first, and Mark then summarized. Sorry, don’t buy that. For that to have happened, Mark would have had to excise exactly those parts of the story that are the most “Christian”. Why excise Jesus’ teaching? Without this, most of Mark’s narrative is the story of a fairly generic wonder-worker. No, that feels like a step backwards. People have suggested this, I believe, because it’s what they want to be true. If Matthew wrote first, then the core of Jesus’ teaching is more easily traced back to Jesus. There is no need for a “lost” gospel of Q, or the intercession of James, or for any other sort of transmission mechanism. It can be a straight line from Jesus to Matthew. Otherwise, suggestions like mine, or Q, are necessary. The appeal of that should not be overlooked. It’s a very clear example of how people will take something as factually accurate because it fits what they think should be, or what they want to be factually accurate. That should always always be kept in mind when assessing evidence for Q. Or anything else, including everything that I say.

1 Cum autem descendisset de monte, secutae sunt eum turbae multae.

2 καὶ ἰδοὺ λεπρὸς προσελθὼν προσεκύνει αὐτῷ λέγων, Κύριε, ἐὰν θέλῃς δύνασαί με καθαρίσαι. 

3 καὶ ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα ἥψατο αὐτοῦ λέγων, Θέλω, καθαρίσθητι: καὶ εὐθέως ἐκαθαρίσθη αὐτοῦ ἡ λέπρα.

And, lo, a leper approached him, falling on his face before him (Jesus) saying, “Lord, if you wish you can make me clean. (3) And extending his hand, he (Jesus) touched him (the leper) saying, “I wish (it). Be clean.” And immediately the leprosy was cleansed from him.

This has the feeling of Mark running through it. There is the falling on the face, or groveling, or worshipping of Jesus. Recall that the word is “proskynesis”, which means “adopting a position of submission, like a dog”. This was an act that Asian potentates had required of their subjects for centuries at this point. It’s a behaviour that caused all sorts of problems when Alexander the Great began to require this of his Greek soldiers, for this was decidedly a non-Greek habit. So we have the leper groveling, and then referring to Jesus as “Lord”. This is a funny word in Greek, ambiguous because it captures the Hebrew sense of “lord” as divine, and merges it with the much more secular sense the word has in Greek. In Hebrew, “Lord” was pretty much a euphemism for “God”. For recall the reluctance of the Hebrews to use the name of God. And even today, some Jews will not write the word “God”, but will spell it “G-d” (at least, this was still not altogether uncommon in my university days). So it becomes hard to tell whether the leper is addressing a temporal master, or one he recognizes as divine. This sort of ambiguity is not uncommon in Mark, recall. In fact, this ambiguity is a prominent feature of Mark. And here again: does it make sense for Matthew, who spelled out from the very beginning of this gospel that Jesus was conceived by the sacred breath, to revert to the ambiguity of Mark? No, it makes much more sense that the more uncertain presentation is the older of the two.

And here’s another thing: recall that Mark had several instances where he provides some specific descriptions of the “magical practices” used by Jesus. There was the spitting in the blind man’s eyes, and making mud with his spit. Here, Matthew tells us Jesus touched the man. This, of course, is reminiscent of the bleeding woman who touched Jesus’ garment. The implication here is that physical touch was necessary. Then think ahead to the wedding feast at Cana. Jesus did not need to touch the water   to effect the transformation into wine. So again, this is the story of a wonder-worker, like Apollonios of Tyana. And wonder-workers were not necessarily divine; recall that in 1 Corinthians, Paul includes wonder-working as a gift of the sacred breath, along with speaking in tongues and prophecy. That a wonder-worker isn’t necessarily divine is something often lost when discussing the miracles of Jesus. Someone I read said that, for Mark the miracles were meant to demonstrate that the kingdom had arrived, that these suspensions of the normal rules demonstrated that the new rules of the kingdom were superseding the out-of-date rules of the previous age. How to put this? No. Wonder-workers were, if not a dime-a-dozen, then not infrequent characters in stories of the time. We’ve mentioned Apollonios, but Josephus mentions one or two others, and they are not absent from pagan stories, either.The plot of The Golden Ass depends of the magical transformation of the main character into a donkey.  

Now for the interesting part. So far, we’ve come across a few things that strike me as being almost certainly historical. The crucifixion is the most significant example. And Paul’s use of Jesus’ teaching on divorce is another. I think the wonder-worker tradition is a third. It’s not mentioned in Paul, but it’s the whole point of Mark, and the tradition still exists here. It gets downplayed in the traditional teachings of James (heretofore known as “Q”); and it’s not at all part of the Didache, which I believe to be the continuation of the James school. So, while Paul and James ignore it, the evangelists do not. Now, whether this is because it was so integral to Mark is hard to say; that is a very plausible reason for it to survive into the later gospels. It had become impossible to ignore. And the early church was not terribly fond of Mark, so there has been speculation on how Mark managed to survive, and not simply end up as another of the many “lost” gospels. Interesting question; perhaps the power of the wonder-worker tradition prevented this happening.

Finally, the last line is pure Mark: …and immediately

That last was going to conclude the comment, but I took a glance up and realized that I’d overlooked the “if you wish/I wish”. It would not be wholly out-of-bounds to translate this as “if you will/I will”, in the sense of “thy will be done”. What does this tell us about the attitude of the evangelists? What is the belief that this is expressing? I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. I think there is some sort of code here, that the meaning conveyed may have been completely transparent to Mark & Matthew’s audiences. I’m not so sure it is. Of course, I get that it means that Jesus has power over circumstances, but how far does that power go? Is this part of the wonder-worker power? Or is this meant to convey that, here, we have gone beyond that? I am honestly not sure. But I don’t think anyone else is really certain, either.

2 Et ecce leprosus veniens adorabat eum dicens: “ Domine, si vis, potes me mundare ”.

3 Et extendens manum, tetigit eum dicens: “ Volo, mundare! ”; et confestim mundata est lepra eius.

4 καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Ορα μηδενὶ εἴπῃς, ἀλλὰ ὕπαγε σεαυτὸν δεῖξον τῷ ἱερεῖ, καὶ προσένεγκον τὸ δῶρον ὃ προσέταξεν Μωϋσῆς, εἰς μαρτύριον αὐτοῖς.

And Jesus said to him, “Tell no one (about this), but get yourself up and go straight to the tempe and offer up the gift (sacrifice) prescribed by Moses as witness to them.

Of course this could/should have been included with the two previous verses, but I moved it because the commentary ran on so long. Here we have classic Mark: the secret. Tell no one. We speculated on what this meant when reading Mark. Personally, I still believe that this was a convention Mark adopted to explain why more Jews had not converted by the time Mark wrote. My suspicion is that already by the time Mark wrote most converts were pagans. We are told this specifically in Acts: there, the author says that Paul’s main audience were the pagan “God-fearers” who frequented the Jewish synagogues to learn the religion of the Jews. Many of these did not convert because of the dietary requirements and the requirement for circumcision. This gives the different attitudes of Paul and James on these topics a bit more urgency, doesn’t it? The point is, assuming that the author of Acts was describing his own time, as much as Paul’s, we can realize why Mark may have felt the need to adopt the idea of the secret to explain to these God-fearers why there were still Jews who hadn’t converted. [Of course, the question is whether the author of Acts is describing any time other than his own. That he mentions it most likely indicates that these God-fearers were the source of many converts in the late First Century; whether this circumstance was true in the third quarter of the First Century is entirely a different question. I believe it was true, but this is based on the evidence of the text as well as the affirmation that preaching to the God-fearers was still a common practice in the last quarter of the century. But we cannot simply assume the former based on affirmation of the latter. That’s not how good historical analysis works. ] 

4 Et ait illi Iesus: “ Vide, nemini dixeris; sed vade, ostende te sacerdoti et offer munus, quod praecepit Moyses, in testimonium illis ”.

5 Εἰσελθόντος δὲ αὐτοῦ εἰς Καφαρναοὺμ προσῆλθεν αὐτῷ ἑκατόνταρχος παρακαλῶν αὐτὸν

6 καὶ λέγων, Κύριε, ὁ παῖς μου βέβληται ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ παραλυτικός, δεινῶς βασανιζόμενος.

7 καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, Ἐγὼ ἐλθὼν θεραπεύσω αὐτόν.

He (Jesus) having come into Caphernaum, a centurion approached him, calling out to him (6) and saying, “Lord, my child lies in my house, paralyzed”. (7) And he (Jesus) said to him (the centurion), “I, coming, will cure him”.

There are a couple of things. First, the word “pais”. Now, in a very literal sense, this means “child”, and “child” generally means “boy-child”. So the centurion could be saying “my boy”. Now, the term “boy” can mean things other than “fruit of my loins”. It is also a term used for a domestic servant. For example, anything written about the Nixon White House before 1985 or so will tell you that the Nixons had a “Filipino houseboy” named Manolo. Of course, Manolo was hardly a “boy”; rather, this is very much a patronizing term for “servant”. So, this is often translated as “servant” in this case. There is reason for this; generally, a biological child would be “hyios”, which is the word used when Jesus is called the Son of God, or the Son of Man. So I really think “servant” is the more appropriate term here. I used the more literal word to get the ambiguity across.

Second, now we are in Caphernaum. I talked about this with Mark: I believe that a careful reading of the text, especially of Mark, indicates that this was where Jesus lived, rather than Nazareth. I think Matthew picked Nazareth to fulfill the prophecy that “he will be called a Nazarene”. All of the action of the gospels takes place in Caphernaum, except when Jesus travels to other places. There is no smoking gun, but Mark 3 had the scene where Jesus was being pressed in the synagogue and his family, hearing about this, came to rescue him. This would not have been possible if his family lived in Nazareth. OTOH, in Mark 6, Jesus returns to his “home town”, which is not named, but it’s presumably not Caphernaum. The answer to this would turn on how likely it was that Jesus moved, and that his mother’s family moved with him. Now if Jesus was the son of Joseph (not likely, IMO, but the name is useful as an example), and Mary remarried after the death of Jesus’ father, then maybe Jesus did move away. But regardless, I find it curious that Mark does so much to get Jesus to Caphernaum, whereas Matthew flatly states that Jesus moved. Now, I don’t know what each of these imply, but I believe it’s the sort of detail that’s worth noticing. It’s in these throw-away lines, the stuff that’s not emphasized, and in the differences between the accounts that provides some of the most fertile soil for real historical analysis.

5 Cum autem introisset Capharnaum, accessit ad eum centurio rogans eum

6 et dicens: “ Domine, puer meus iacet in domo paralyticus et male torquetur ”.

7 Et ait illi: “ Ego veniam et curabo eum ”.

8 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ ἑκατόνταρχος ἔφη, Κύριε, οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς ἵνα μου ὑπὸ τὴν στέγην εἰσέλθῃς: ἀλλὰ μόνον εἰπὲ λόγῳ, καὶ ἰαθήσεται ὁ παῖς μου.  

9 καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ ἄνθρωπός εἰμι ὑπὸ ἐξουσίαν, ἔχων ὑπ’ ἐμαυτὸν στρατιώτας, καὶ λέγω τούτῳ, Πορεύθητι, καὶ πορεύεται, καὶ ἄλλῳ, Ἔρχου, καὶ ἔρχεται, καὶ τῷ δούλῳ μου, Ποίησον τοῦτο, καὶ ποιεῖ.

10 ἀκούσας δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐθαύμασεν καὶ εἶπεν τοῖς ἀκολουθοῦσιν, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, παρ’ οὐδενὶ τοσαύτην πίστιν ἐν τῷ Ἰσραὴλ εὗρον.  11 λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν ὅτι πολλοὶ ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν καὶ δυσμῶν ἥξουσιν καὶ ἀνακλιθήσονται μετὰ Ἀβραὰμκαὶ Ἰσαὰκ καὶ Ἰακὼβ ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν:

12 οἱ δὲ υἱοὶ τῆς βασιλείας ἐκβληθήσονται εἰς τὸ σκότος τὸ ἐξώτερον: ἐκεῖ ἔσται ὁ κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὁ βρυγμὸςτῶν ὀδόντων.

13 καὶ εἶπεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τῷ ἑκατοντάρχῃ, Υπαγε, ὡς ἐπίστευσας γενηθήτω σοι. καὶ ἰάθη ὁ παῖς [αὐτοῦ] ἐν τῇ ὥρᾳ ἐκείνῃ.

 And answering, the centurion said, “Lord, I am not worthy in order for you to come under my roof. But, only say the word and my servant will be healed. (9) And for I am a man under (i.e., “with) power. having under myself soldiers, and I say to one of them ‘Go’, and he goes; while to another (I say) ‘Come’, and he comes. Or I say to a slave ‘Do that’ and he does that”. (10) Hearing this, Jesus was amazed and said to those following, “Amen I say to you, never this kind of faith in Israel have I found. (11) I say to you that many from the east and west (are/will be) worthy and will be seated with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of the heavens. (12) The sons of the king will be thrown into the shadows. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth”. (13) And Jesus said, “Arise, as you have been faithful, let it become (as you wish) for you.” And on that hour, the servant [of him] was healthy.  

Oh my. This is truly a fascinating piece, and the juxtaposition with the previous account makes it even more so. Where to start? Back in the leper story, I talked about the way Mark often described the magical practices Jesus followed. In accordance with this, we noted that Jesus touched the man to effect the cure. Then I jumped ahead to the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus had only to say the word. Well, guess what? This is what the centurion says. The point is that Jesus was not simply some wonder-worker who needed to cast spells and perform wonders through magical practice. No, like the centurion, Jesus was a man of power, who only had to order things and they would be completed. Again, we wonder how far to push the metaphor; are we to interpret this that Jesus would order an angel to effect the cure? Possibly. But exactly how the divine powers worked was perhaps not a real concern of Matthew or his audience. Such concerns would come to the fore in the Reformation, when nascent science blended with magic so that the mechanism of cures, wonders, etc. became important in a way they had not been before. Here, I think, lies much of the causation for the witch hunts of Early Modern (not Mediaeval) Europe.

Then there is the fact that this is a man who began life as a pagan, And not only, he was a man of some rank. The centurions in the Roman legions were nominally in command of a hundred men (hence, cent-). In practice, it was often sixty, but the point remains. This indeed was a man of authority. Unlike the modern military, these groups were much more semi-autonomous, so the man in charge had pretty much the power of life and death over the soldiers. So this was not a man to be trifled with. And the centurions were often nasty, maintaining order through fear. So again, not someone to be trifled with. Was he a God-fearer? Luke’s version of this story very much makes this explicit. In Luke, the locals vouched for the centurion, saying that the soldier had built their synagogue. 

This provides a very interesting angle.  Recall the discussion about God-fearers as mentioned in Acts. Maybe, by the time “Luke” wrote Acts, it had become necessary to remind people why Paul was preaching in synagogues, looking for converts there. Maybe in an earlier age, such as when Mark, and even Matthew wrote, the author could simply take it for granted that the audience would understand that God-fearers were especially sought out as converts. As time passed, however, this became forgotten by the community at large. By the time Luke wrote, perhaps the God-fearers were not so plentiful, so Luke had to remind his audience of this state of affairs. He does this by telling us about why Paul preached in synagogues, and inserting the detail that the centurion had built the local synagogue. 

This, I think, would support my contention that the point at which most converts were former pagans came rather earlier than is generally assumed.

Because that, in large part, is what this passage is really about. This is about how the Jesus movement has stopped being a sect of Judaism. When Matthew was writing this, belief in Jesus had become Christianity. As such, Jews no longer held the privileged position that they held at one time. The prevalence of pagans was an issue already in Paul; in Romans, he asks rhetorically if there is benefit to being from a Jewish background. He answers affirmatively, but the question was coming up a generation or more before Matthew. By the latter’s time, he has Jesus predict that they will come from east and west and sit with Abraham, while the erstwhile sons and heirs of the kingdom will be left out. Why? Because they didn’t join with the new belief. They remained adherents of the old; I am not sure when the term “New Covenant” was coined; it wasn’t used in Mark; I suspect it will be used later in Matthew.

As an aside, this, I think, argues against an early Q source. This story is supposedly in Q, but it seems to be clearly part of a milieu in which most Jesus followers are pagan, rather than Jewish. This just as clearly argues for a later date for the composition of this story. It belongs, it makes sense in the 80s; it doesn’t make sense in the 50s.

Given this, once again the juxtaposition is very telling. In the first part, we had the story of the leper, which ended with Jesus commanding the man not to tell anyone. This is right out of Mark. Why the need for secrecy? To explain why the Jews didn’t all become followers of Jesus. And then Matthew follows this up with this story, to contrast the faith of the pagan with the fact that Jews, in large part, ignored Jesus’ teaching.

Something else is very important to realize: this story is not in Mark. It is brand new. Now, of course, the Q people claim that it was transmitted by Q, but I don’t buy this. In this case, I agree that the writing is very well constructed. We have Mark’s story of the leper, and Matthew was so fortunate that Q just happened to have this story to use for compare and contrast? Sure, it’s possible, but this fits with, and contrasts with Mark’s story in so many ways that, IMO, the probability of this story just happening is very, very low. Rather, I would argue that Matthew constructed this story specifically for the purpose of compare and contrast. The fit is just too tight, IMO, for this to be coincidental. I keep harping on this, but it continues to be true: Matthew did not flinch from inventing–out of whole cloth–the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents. Matthew is not interested in history. He was not recording an historical narrative; rather, he has a theological case to make. The Slaughter of the Innocents is undeniable proof that Matthew was both creative, and willing to use this creativity to make his point. So it should not be too much of a stretch to imagine that Matthew invented this story.

Of course, that creates another whole set of problems, especially for the Q people. If Matthew invented this story, then he didn’t find it in Q. And that carries the very heavy implication that, perhaps, Luke did not find this story in Q. If it wasn’t in Q, then where did Luke find it? Well, the obvious answer would be that he read it in Matthew. As such, they will fight this suggestion tooth and nail. They will fight most of what I’m saying, but that’s OK. I don’t recall about which discipline this was originally said, but the aphorism is that the conventional wisdom in academics changes one funeral at a time. If I were entering my graduate work, or if I knew someone who was, I would suggest training in Q in order to argue against it the moment the ink on the Ph.D. was dry. It’s a topic that is just begging for some serious controversy.

Since we’ve drifted a bit from the topic, I will sum up this section. Matthew starts with one of Mark’s healing stories, including the injunction to silence, and then sets up a contrast to a new story about a new miracle. The purpose is twofold. First, it’s to show that Jesus was not some magician, using incantations and magic spit; rather, he was a divine creature, who could work his wonders at a distance, perhaps by commanding other divine agents. Second, the Jesus movement has been transferred from a Jewish sect into its own religion. 

 8 Et respondens centurio ait: “ Domine, non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur puer meus.

9 Nam et ego homo sum sub potestate, habens sub me milites, et dico huic: “Vade”, et vadit; et alii: “Veni”, et venit; et servo meo: “Fac hoc”, et facit”.

10 Audiens autem Iesus, miratus est et sequentibus se dixit: “Amen dico vobis: Apud nullum inveni tantam fidem in Israel!

11 Dico autem vobis quod multi ab oriente et occidente venient et recumbent cum Abraham et Isaac et Iacob in regno caelorum;

12 filii autem regni eicientur in tenebras exteriores: ibi erit fletus et stridor dentium ”.

13 Et dixit Iesus centurioni: “ Vade; sicut credidisti, fiat tibi ”. Et sanatus est puer in hora illa.


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 February 15, 2015, in gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel, Q and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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