Summary Matthew Chapter 8

The overall theme of this chapter is miracles. We had the leper, the centurion’s boy, Peter’s mother-in-law, calming the sea, and finished with the Gadarene demonaic. Most of these stories were in Mark, with the exception of the centurion’s boy. With the exception of the latter, Matthew’s versions of the stories were shorter, with fewer details.

What does this mean? Or imply? The overall sense is an attempt to brush by the exorcism stories, and to de-emphasize the miracle stories; if this latter is true, so why does Matthew invent–or at least insert*–an entirely new miracle story? I think that the lesser emphasis on Mark, and the greater emphasis on the centurion is all part of the same phenomenon. The audience has changed. By and large, the idea of demonic possession was not of much interest to a Graeco-Roman audience. The idea of demonic possession just does not occur all that often in Classical literature. Magic is certainly prominent, but not demons. Why? Because, by and large, the idea of demons was, to a great degree, a Christian phenomenon. I don’t mean that the idea did not exist before Christians; JB Russell certainly disproves that in The Devil, the first volume of his history of the concept of the Devil. And Satan was part of Jewish tradition. But it was the interaction of the new Christian theology in its struggle with paganism that really developed the idea of demons. The pagan gods were largely ambivalent; they would do good, they would do bad. Yes, there was Ahriman, the principal of evil (really, of darkness, but it came to be more or less the same thing) in Zoroastrianism. And the Greeks had kakodaimones, “bad daimons” to distinguish them from the beneficent daimons, such as the one who famously counseled Socrates. But, as a rule, they didn’t go around possessing people.

[*Yes, the official view is that this story was in Q. Preposterous. This is a story that makes much more sense in the 80s than in the 40s or 50s. Q is supposed to be a sayings gospel, on the order of Gospel of Thomas, except when it has all these narrative stories, like the dialogue between Jesus and Satan during the temptations, here with this story, and others. Which is it? A collection of sayings? Or another nearly complete gospel? Gospel of Thomas has nothing like this, so if that’s the paradigm for Q, then there’s no way this was included. The Q proponents want it both ways, and that is a huge problem.]

Christians–as the Jews before them–were a tad ambivalent about the existence of other deities. Strike that. They were very clear about the existence of a single God, but they by no means denied the existence of other supernatural beings. Nor did they deny (for the most part; there were Christian thinkers who did exactly that) that these supernatural beings had power and could create wonders. So it was the steady, and very literal demonization of these pagan gods that really swelled the ranks and the power of Satan, the Great Enemy. We have the “diabolos”, the slanderer who tempted Jesus, and Mark mentions ‘ho satannos’, Satan. So Christians most certainly did not invent these ideas, but they only became the integral part of the culture-world and thought-world after a few centuries of the development of Christian thought. Like with other things, the Christians sort of merged Jewish and pagan thought into something different, even if it wasn’t quite, and certainly not wholly, new.

So what are the implications of the way that Matthew downplayed the story of the Gerasene/Gadarene demonaic?

To start our thinking about this, I believe we are justified in taking this as a story that came to Mark via oral tradition. It’s too elaborate, it has too many details, it’s too different from Mark’s standard laconic style. What this means is that Jesus had been known as, and was remembered as, a wonder-worker by one significant segment of those who were, or became followers of Jesus after the crucifixion. And I think it’s important to understand that this segment of Jesus’ followers probably did not overlap with the groups that Paul founded. It is tempting here to infer that Mark was more attuned to traditions that were localized in the areas around Judea and Galilee, and the traditions perhaps had not percolated to the pagan communities that Paul converted. Thus, the inference is that Jesus was remembered locally–in Judea and Galilee and environs–more as a wonder-worker than as the Christ. Wonder-workers are not outside the Judaic culture- or thought-world. Josephus mentions, and Ehrman talks about Honi the Circle Maker as a figure not dissimilar–in some ways–to Jesus in Judaic lore.

Recall how we discussed that Mark has, seemingly, two thematic components. The first, perhaps the earliest, is the wonder-worker tradition, of which the story of the Gerasene demonaic is one of the climactic pieces. The other component is the Christ tradition, which sort of takes over the narrative towards the end, with Chapters 7/8/9 being sort of the transition ground. This is the tradition of Paul. Matthew, seemingly, picks up the story from the Christ tradition. So we have the transition from the wonder-worker to the Christ in place by the time Matthew decided to write his gospel. The question to ask in conjunction with this is, do we have a change of audience, too?

Traditionally, Mark was part of Peter’s retinue. So, since Peter was, traditionally, martyred in Rome, it was more or less assumed that Mark wrote in Rome. However, a lot of this is based on stuff that the early and later patristic thinkers wrote, culminating with Eusebios and his Ecclesiastical History. The problem is, I do not believe that Eusebios is particularly trustworthy. He was, essentially, writing the official biography of the Church up to that point. He had too much of a vested interest, and so had too much incentive to tell anything but the official line that would best suit the needs of the Church as it existed in his lifetime. The truth is, we have no idea whether Paul or Peter ever went to Rome, let alone that they were martyred there. Peter in Rome suited the needs of the Bishop of Rome in his claims to a primacy over all the other bishops. Even Clement, the fourth bishop of Rome (Linus, Cletus, Clement…that was part of the Catholic mass at one point) has a real interest in claiming to be the successor of Peter, so the tradition is suspect from the outset.

So if Mark didn’t write in Rome, then where? Well, the Aramaic sayings, nicely translated, indicate a place outside of Galilee and/or Judea. OK, that’s great. But there were a substantial number of Jews for whom Greek would have been their native tongue. Paul is perhaps one; Philo of Alexandria is another; and then there’s Matthew, who read the LXX translation rather than the Hebrew Torah. So Mark could still have been writing for a largely, if not exclusively, Jewish audience even if he felt the need to translate the Aramaic expressions. The tradition, again dating back to the patristic thinkers, is that Matthew originally wrote in Aramaic; however, there is no evidence for this other than their say-so, and this was a group who believed that Matthew wrote first. As such, I’m not inclined to take their word on this, or much of anything else for that matter. Claiming that Matthew was originally written in Aramaic is part-and-parcel of their belief (probably more like “fervent wish”) that Matthew was the original gospel. Writing in Aramaic would have put Matthew closer to Jesus, in both time and space. This would make it unnecessary to explain the inconvenient fact that so much of Jesus’ teaching is absent from Mark.

So, let’s put some pieces together. (1) The Christ tradition seems, perhaps, to have taken root largely among pagan communities. That is a bit of a leap, I realize; it’s based on the fact that Paul preached the Christ tradition, and he preached primarily to pagans. We do not know what James and the Jerusalem community taught, but, thanks to Paul, we do know it was something much closer to mainline Judaism, given its insistence on maintaining dietary laws and circumcision for even adult male converts. Given the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, and those in the Didache, it’s not entirely far-fetched to say that the followers who adhered to more Jewish practice were probably not in the forefront of the Christ tradition. (2) Matthew preaches the Christ tradition. In fact, he insists on not only Jesus as the Christ, but Jesus as divine. The Christ could be fitted into the Judaic mainstream, but the latter could not. Ergo, there exists the strong possibility that Matthew was not directing his gospel at a primarily Jewish audience. A generation had passed since Mark wrote, and since the destruction of the Temple, and more than a generation had passed since the death of James the Just, leader of the Jerusalem community. In addition, much of the Jesus movement in Judea, and possibly Galilee, may have dissipated with the death of James and the destruction of the city. As such, the centre of gravity for the Jesus movement had moved outside its homeland. IOW, the Jesus movement was now concentrated in areas that had been pagan. They may well have had, and probably did have, significant Jewish communities, but they were not traditionally or historically Jewish areas. (3) The idea of a divine son of a god was very familiar to pagans. This was a recurring theme in pagan literature and legend, whereas demonic possession was not. So the fact that Matthew is preaching a divine being, a son of God (rather than a god), and that Matthew is not quite so focused on demonic possession could easily be seen to signify that Matthew had tailored his message to a predominantly pagan audience. Where Mark sort of straddled the middle, Matthew was picking up where Mark ended, and de-emphasizing, or playing down the wonder-worker and exorcist. (4) In Chapter 8, Matthew has a story that was completely absent from Mark. The focus of the story is a Roman centurion, a man of significant position and authority in the Roman army. The centurions were, more or less, the senior NCOs, the sergeants, and everyone who understands the military realizes these are the backbone of the army. They run things on the day-to-day, boots on the ground level. They aren’t concerned with strategy or logistics; their job is to ensure that decisions made at the higher levels got carried out, and effectively. So this is a man who was of the people, but a leader of the people. He was not a born aristocrat as the officers were. He was a career military man. So gaining his respect, and counting him as a follower of Jesus would have been a powerful message to a pagan audience who would have understood the man’s importance. This man came to Jesus for help. And not only did Jesus not spurn him, he not only helped the man, but, to conclude, Jesus held the man out as a sterling example for Jews. And that’s still not the end. Jesus then tells this man that it’s people like him, not the sons of Israel, who will be counted as the heirs of the kingdom of the heavens.

Add these together, and it’s pretty clear why Matthew downplayed the story of the Gadarene demonaic, and substituted the story of the centurion’s boy. Matthew was now writing for pagans. I think we can be reasonably certain of that from this point forward; however, I will continue to tally up the evidence as it presents itself.

Thus, the significance of Chapter 8 is that it represents the point where we can take it for granted that, whatever his personal background, Matthew was not primarily concerned with converting Jews any longer. The Christians he was now preaching to were not former Jews; rather, they were mostly former pagans. That is, admittedly, a pretty bold statement, but I believe it’s borne out by the evidence and the internal logic of the text. This is what happens when one reads this as an historical–albeit an inadvertent one–document.


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 28, 2015, in General / Overview, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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