Matthew Chapter 11:7-19
We left off with Jesus talking to the disciples of John, telling them of the fulfillment of the prophesies of Isaiah for the day when the Lord would come with a vengeance. These disciples are the “they” who go away in Verse 7.
7 Τούτων δὲ πορευομένων ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγειν τοῖς ὄχλοις περὶ Ἰωάννου, Τί ἐξήλθατε εἰς τὴν ἔρημον θεάσασθαι; κάλαμον ὑπὸ ἀνέμου σαλευόμενον;
8 ἀλλὰ τί ἐξήλθατε ἰδεῖν; ἄνθρωπον ἐν μαλακοῖς ἠμφιεσμένον; ἰδοὺ οἱ τὰ μαλακὰφοροῦντες ἐν τοῖς οἴκοις τῶν βασιλέων εἰσίν.
9 ἀλλὰ τί ἐξήλθατε ἰδεῖν; προφήτην; ναί, λέγω ὑμῖν, καὶ περισσότερον προφήτου.
They (disciples of John) having gone away, Jesus began to say to the crowd about John, “What did you come out into the wilderness to see for yourself? A reed waving in the wind? (8) But what did you come to see? A man dressed in soft (clothes)? Look, those dressed in soft clothes are in the houses of kings. (9) But what did you expect to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet.
A couple of quick things. Most people dressed in homespun. It wasn’t processed all that much because it cost too much (in labor) to do so. As a result, their clothes were coarse. Kings, however, could afford to pay people to make soft cloth, and then make this into clothes. I believe that most people would have worn wool garments, because sheep were plentiful. Cotton was grown in Egypt at the very least, but I don’t believe it was grown elsewhere to any extent. Cotton is much softer than wool, and the limited production meant it was expensive. So kings could also afford this. The softness, and the lighter weight of cotton was what made it become so wildly popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. That, and the invention of the cotton gin, which made it fast and cheap to separate the seeds out of the raw cotton, which had also been a barrier to widespread use of the material.
But the real point of this is to build up the relationship to the Baptist. The question is, why? This bit is not considered to be part of the original stratum of Q. Therefore, it cannot date back to Jesus. Therefore, it was made up after Jesus’ death. So why would someone, two generations after the deaths of both Jesus and John wish to continue the relationship between the two? Why did Matthew invent this little speech for Jesus? And the most likely explanation is that Matthew did make it up, rather than that Matthew received it from tradition. Well, the first reason would be that there were still followers of John. In fact, there were still enough followers of John that the proto-Christians sought to co-opt them and bring them into the sphere of Jesus’ followers. By calling John “more than a prophet”, Matthew flatters both John and John’s followers. This, most likely, was intended to induce these followers to give the teachings of the proto-Christian community a fair hearing. Because as I’ve said, far from being embarrassed by Jesus’ prima facie subordinate position to John and downplaying it, the evangelists continue to expand on the relationship between the two. This is not the action of people who were embarrassed by Jesus’ relationship with John. Matthew expands it, and Luke expands it even more, by by creating the tale that the two were first cousins. No, the evangelists want to underline and bold the relationship; they do not want to delete it.
Aside from winning converts, the other thing a solid relationship between John and Jesus cements the latter’s connexion to “mainstream” Judaism. I’ve mentioned this before, so I’ll just recapitulate briefly. By this point, connecting Jesus to Judaism was not an effort to impress Jews as whole–followers of John excepted–but to impress pagans. This connexion set Jesus firmly into the ancient tradition of the Jews, and this long lineage was of great importance as a marketing tool to attract pagans. These latter were impressed by ancient wisdom, not by innovation. This, I think, is the strongest possibility of why the connexion to John was steadily enlarged. If this could attract followers of John, or at least neutralize John as a competing sect, that would have been largely an added bonus. The pagan audience was much larger, and would have been seen as the real point of emphasis.
7 Illis autem abeuntibus, coepit Iesus dicere ad turbas de Ioanne: “ Quid existis in desertum videre? Arundinem vento agitatam?
8 Sed quid existis videre? Hominem mollibus vestitum? Ecce, qui mollibus vestiuntur, in domibus regum sunt.
9 Sed quid existis videre? Prophetam? Etiam, dico vobis, et plus quam prophetam.
10 οὗτός ἐστιν περὶ οὗ γέγραπται, Ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου, ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου ἔμπροσθέν σου.
11 ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐκ ἐγήγερταιἐν γεννητοῖς γυναικῶν μείζων Ἰωάννου τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ: ὁ δὲ μικρότερος ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν μείζων αὐτοῦ ἐστιν.
“He is the one about whom it was written, ‘Behold, I send (apostello) my herald before your face, the one who prepares the way before you’.” (11) Amen I say to you, there is not one raised up born of a woman greater than John the Baptist. But (de) the least in the kingdom of the heavens is greater than John.”
This is a very clever echo of the opening of account of John back in Chapter 3:3. Except there the quote came from Isaiah; here it is Malachi 3:1. I deem this clever because it expresses much the same sentiment, and evokes the same sense of expectation for what is to come. I did not realize that Malachi so closely reiterated what Isaiah had said, and here Matthew the clever scholar of the HS* uses the lesser prophet to reinforce what the greater prophet had said. This also gives me, the former Catholic whose knowledge of the NT was spotty, and whose knowledge of the HS was almost–but not quite–non-existent a moment of pause. Like preaching to the poor in Isaiah, the announcement of the herald who comes to prepare the way indicates a level of Messiah expectation beyond what I had suspected. The thing is, in Malachi the forerunner is the herald of the Day of Judgement, just as the signs prophesied by Isaiah that were just noted by Jesus were indications of the coming of the Lord. In vengeance. But then, that is what the herald presaged in Isaiah 40:3, the verse used about John back in Matthew 3:3.
Naturally, the purpose of this all is to fix both John and Jesus into the context of the HS. It flatters John by making him the fulfillment of prophecy from both Isaiah and Malachi. Of course, it flatters Jesus even more by implying that he is the coming Lord. After all, this is the question that was asked: are you the one who’s coming? Jesus gave his usual cryptic and/or evasive answer by citing the prophesies, but, ultimately, the answer is ‘yes’.
Now this produces a bit of prestidigitation here. Jesus is the one who’s coming, but in the prophecies the one who’s coming is the Lord, IOW, God, and the coming is a Day of Retribution and/or Vengeance, or even Judgement Day. If Jesus is “the one”, does this equate him to the Lord/God? If so, does this mean it’s Judgement Day? To be honest, these are niceties of logic that really don’t apply to this sort of writing. Matthew is not creating a case; he’s telling us a Truth. By “the one” he of course means the anointed. Just exactly what the implications of this were for Matthew is difficult to say. I would suspect he wasn’t entirely clear on this himself. These were not systematic theologians like St Augustine; they were likely preachers of the word, full of the sacred breath. And the thing about that is, when one is breathed into (in-spired) what comes out as perfectly suited to the moment may not be completely consistent with something you said the week, or the day before. And yet, both are True. This is where Truth and factual accuracy most notably part company, Opposing sentiments can be True, even if they are mutually exclusive. This is the sort of thing that can drive rational people into disbelief.
Our main concern here, however, is what does Matthew believe? Well, we know from the outset of the gospel that he believes that Jesus is the Christ; and this is what he means by ‘the one who is to come’. Does he believe it’s Judgement Day? Probably not. He may be stating, or at least implying, that the kingdom of the heavens has dawned. That it is happening. I’ve read other interpreters say this about Mark: that the miracles were meant to be the sign that the kingdom had indeed arrived. I’m not sure I agree with this, and almost certainly I don’t agree with this about Matthew. He doesn’t stress the miracles, at least not qua miracles. Jesus does point to them as signs that the kingdom was/is coming. But what the actual implications are, it’s not entirely clear. So far, the maddening thing about reading these gospels is that so much is oblique. I’m looking for the foundations of later Christian theology, or at least later Christian dogma, and it’s remarkably elusive. This is especially true if you take each gospel as a discreet unit. Neither Mark, nor Matthew (so far) has set out the sort of catechism I was taught in religion classes. So much of it, from the Trinity on, had to be worked out in subsequent centuries. Clearly, the words in these verses tell us that Matthew believes that something has changed, or will change. But, if the latter, when? That is difficult to say.
One last thing. The existence of the quote from Malachi used here tells us that apocalyptic thinking was by no means restricted to Jesus and his followers. Malachi was written late in the pre-Common Era. As such, it’s a good indication that apocalyptic expectations were not alien to the thought-world into which Jesus was born. If you compare different apocalyptic writings, we immediately note the variances between them. This is the Truth/accuracy dichotomy showing up very clearly. What exactly would happen was not, I think, entirely the point. It was that drastic changes would occur: great upheavals, a time of tribulation, an overthrow of the existing order, perhaps the end times. As such, perhaps we are–or I am–mistaken to look for a programmatic description of what Matthew expected, or what he meant by the kingdom. Paul clearly expected the end times, and soon. But what he expected of the kingdom isn’t entirely clear, either. He taught that certain behaviours would exclude one from the kingdom, but that’s about as good a description as one gets. Once again, perhaps this is not a topic amenable to rational investigation. Perhaps asking the question indicates that one has missed the point.
Oops. There is one more last thing: the bit about John being less than the least in the kingdom. However, I’m going to discuss it in conjunction with the next section.
[ *Matthew’s deep knowledge of the HS does not necessarily imply that he was raised a Jew. I have been making the argument to the contrary. However, it is the most likely explanation for Matthew’s understanding of HS. What this means is that I need to come up with a really good argument to give plausibility to my assertion that Matthew was not Jewish by birth or upbringing. Then I suppose a marriage between a Jew and a Pagan might provide a working explanation for both Matthew’s grasp of the OT and those places where he seems to have an innate sense of the pagan world as well. I need to collect the scattered pieces of my argument and fit them together to see if it comes close to holding water. But then, I need to do this with a number of themes… ]
10 Hic est, de quo scriptum est: / “Ecce ego mitto angelum meum ante faciem tuam, / qui praeparabit viam tuam ante te”.
11 Amen dico vobis: Non surrexit inter natos mulierum maior Ioanne Baptista; qui autem minor est in regno caelorum, maior est illo.
12 ἀπὸ δὲ τῶν ἡμερῶν Ἰωάννου τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ ἕως ἄρτι ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν βιάζεται, καὶ βιασταὶ ἁρπάζουσιν αὐτήν.
13 πάντες γὰρ οἱ προφῆται καὶ ὁ νόμος ἕως Ἰωάννου ἐπροφήτευσαν:
14 καὶ εἰ θέλετε δέξασθαι, αὐτός ἐστιν Ἠλίας ὁ μέλλων ἔρχεσθαι.
15 ὁ ἔχων ὦτα ἀκουέτω.
From the days of John the Dunker until now, the kingdom of the heavens suffers violence (lit = is violented. ‘Violence is actually a passive verb here), and the violent ones seize her (her = the kingdom; “kingdom is a feminine noun, so feminine pronouns are used). (13) For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. (14) And if you wish to accept, he (John) is Elijah, the one willing to come. (15) Let the one having ears hear.
The antecedent for the “he” in “he is Elijah” is most logically John. That’s what all the rules tell us, so I think it’s a pretty safe bet. I say this because it’s critically important to the meaning of the passage.
The first part of this presents an interesting existential statement. The kingdom suffers violence, and has been seized by violent ones. This is not a description of something that is to be experienced in the afterlife, or something that is approaching. It is here. Now. In fact, it’s been here since the time of the prophets. The only possible way to understand this is that the kingdom of the heavens is actually the world as we know it. How else could it have been hijacked by violent ones? S0 what does this do to all our musings about the kingdom? And why did John tell us that the kingdom was approaching?
I suppose the most obvious interpretation is that the current order, in which the kingdom was seized by violence is to be overthrown. The violent men will be cast off, and the true nature of the kingdom will become manifest. But by virtue of this statement, we are not to expect the kingdom in the afterlife, but in this life. Remember, Matthew has not used psyche to mean anything but physical life, other than in the passage about killing the body but not the psyche. Nor has he mentioned “the life”, which Mark talked about. Perhaps those are implicit, that the audience for the gospel would read the existence of those two things into the text to this point, just as later Christians did. But I doubt that. Really, the only way this passage makes sense is if the kingdom is to occur here in this life, on this world. This will be the ideal state that is to occur after the overthrow of the current order.
And the reference to Elijah came in Mark’s story of the Transfiguration. At that point, Jesus told those followers who had witnessed the Transfiguration that Elijah had already come. Per my limited understanding of HS, it seems that Elijah was to come (return?) before the fulfillment of the prophecies. In Mark 9, when Jesus said Elijah had come, the implication–as I read it–was that Jesus referred to the Elijah who had indeed come, back in the days before the fall of Israel. Here, however, Matthew is making the direct connexion of Elijah and John. There is nothing in Mark to note the equation John = Elijah, IMO, this statement of Matthew making the equation explicit is an idea, or an interpretation that came along later, between the time Mark and Matthew wrote. And this makes sense given the overall context of the chapter so far. It’s all been about setting the identities and the roles of Jesus and John. The latter has been elevated to the one foretold by Isaiah and by Malachi; here, he is elevated further into the role of Elijah.
But then there’s the bit from the last section, that John is the greatest of those born of women, but less than the least in the kingdom. How does that jibe with a) the idea of a kingdom of this world; and b) John = Elijah? As for the first, I’m not entirely sure it does. How can both of these be? How can the kingdom be seized by violent ones, and yet be approaching, and yet John is lesser than the least in the kingdom? Logically, I’m not sure you can. Eve in the realm of mythic Truth, this becomes difficult. So what do we make of this? How do we square the circle?
The most obvious suggestion, and explanation, I think, is that we are dealing with multiple threads of belief. There are multiple threads because the meaning of all of this was not entirely settled among the various groups that followed and professed Jesus as their…lord, I guess would be the most generic term. I hesitate to use anointed because I’m not entirely convinced that this was a universal belief. The other thread out there was the belief in Jesus as a divine being, which I think was even further from being universal. Given this, I would suggest that this lack of universality was a major impetus behind Matthew writing. I think he was trying to establish what we would call an orthodox position. I suggested the same about Mark, that he was trying to merge the wonder-worker with the anointed one. In this, I would suggest that Mark was largely, but not completely successful. Or perhaps, in Matthew’s eyes, Mark hadn’t gone far enough; he hadn’t convincingly demonstrated Jesus’ divinity.
In addition, perhaps Matthew was trying to nail down just what was meant by the kingdom. But because he didn’t want to sort out and validate–or invalidate–certain segments, he sort of included them all. This results in an aphorism stuck into a passage where it doesn’t really seem to belong. This results in sections like this, where several (at least potentially) contradictory statements are put together in an attempt to create a unity. Really, what this needs is a finer comb, to go back to those places where it seems that things don’t quite fit together, to collect them, and to sort them to see if there is any coherent pattern. To the best of my (admittedly very limited) knowledge, this has never been done before, because no one has ever approached it from the perspective of the historical development of the text. At least, it hasn’t been done successfully enough to leave a distinct footprint in the scholarship.
In the end, the message is that I’m not sure what Matthew believes in when he says ‘the kingdom’. Perhaps he didn’t know himself? And by “know”, I mean he hadn’t completely arrived at a semi-consistent notion of the kingdom. And it occurs to me: if I am correct that a number of things Jesus said went into circulation between the time of Mark and Matthew then the latter’s incomplete conception makes sense. I am suggesting that Jesus followers increased significantly after Mark, but they did so in isolation from each other. So this led to different interpretations, that were bolstered by different quotes “from Jesus”. This is exactly the sort of thing that occurs when the master passes and the different followers remember different things, or even the same things in different ways. So yes, much of the Q material may have come from other sources, but, IMO, not all of it was actually from Jesus. Some of it came from other places, and one major source was likely James the Just.
12 A diebus autem Ioannis Baptistae usque nunc regnum caelorum vim patitur, et violenti rapiunt illud.
13 Omnes enim Prophetae et Lex usque ad Ioannem prophetaverunt;
14 et si vultis recipere, ipse est Elias, qui venturus est.
15 Qui habet aures, audiat.
16 Τίνι δὲ ὁμοιώσω τὴν γενεὰν ταύτην; ὁμοία ἐστὶν παιδίοις καθημένοις ἐν ταῖς ἀγοραῖς ἃ προσφωνοῦντα τοῖς ἑτέροις
17 λέγουσιν, Ηὐλήσαμεν ὑμῖν καὶ οὐκ ὠρχήσασθε: ἐθρηνήσαμεν καὶ οὐκ ἐκόψασθε.
18 ἦλθεν γὰρ Ἰωάννης μήτε ἐσθίων μήτε πίνων, καὶ λέγουσιν, Δαιμόνιον ἔχει:
19 ἦλθεν ὁυἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐσθίων καὶ πίνων, καὶ λέγουσιν, Ἰδοὺ ἄνθρωπος φάγος καὶ οἰνοπότης, τελωνῶν φίλος καὶ ἁμαρτωλῶν. καὶ ἐδικαιώθη ἡ σοφία ἀπὸ τῶν ἔργων αὐτῆς.
“But to what do I liken this generation? It is like children seated in the agora, who calling forth each other (17) say ‘we piped for you and you did not dance. We sang a dirge and you did not smite your breast’ (as in grief). For John came neither eating nor drinking and you said ‘he has a demon’. (19) The son of man came, eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look at the man gluttonous and wine-drinking, friend of tax collectors and sinners. And wisdom is justified by her works’.”
Here, IMO, is another example of a non-sequitur. “Wisdom is justified by her works”. How does that really relate to what came before? Or what will come after, when he starts to say woe unto the various towns. Even more, what does that mean? Are we supposed to personify wisdom, as in Wisdom? None of my translations do that, and I’m not surprised. Wisdom, Sophia, was a…divine creature of independent stature for Gnostics and within some of the groups that wrote the Pseudographa. Needless to say, even the latter group wasn’t entirely orthodox, so commentators and translators might be reluctant to reify wisdom as Wisdom to avoid adding any non-orthodox meanings here. Better to leave it as a head-scratcher. And please, if anyone can see where this connects to the rest of the passage, please fill me in.
And the transition from John/Elijah to this generation isn’t exactly smooth, either. Are the two related? Sure, I can come up with half-a-dozen ways to connect the two, but none of them are particularly compelling. Think about it this way: have someone read the text to you aloud, and see if you don’t feel a dull thump when we go from s/he having ears, her into ‘to what do I compare this generation’. So the next time you hear about the brilliant organization of Matthew’s material, feel free to question the writer’s judgement, or even her/his bona fides.
In the same way, I get how we go from the children speaking in the agora to the compare & contrast of John and Jesus. But really, think about it: the two are not analogous situations. And why children in the agora? Because they lack discretionary thinking skills? OK, that’s fine, but that’s where the analogy ends. Each of these sections sounds good in and of itself. It’s just that they don’t entirely hang together. The whole is somehow less than the sum of the parts, in my opinion.
One thing I do get out of this is the bit about Jesus calling himself a glutton and a wine toper. Of everything in this section, and perhaps in the chapter, this, I think, has the best chance of actually dating back to Jesus’ time. Not so much that Jesus said this, but perhaps that it was said about him. Or, at least, that he wasn’t an ascetic the way John was. That may just be an authentic detail. Can’t prove it one way or the other, but why would anyone invent something like that? Of course, if we accept this as factual, what does this say about Jesus’ view of the coming apocalypse? The most obvious thing is that his approach to the coming…apocalypse was rather different from John’s, as this passage points out. Generally, talk thatx the ‘end is near’ inspires sackcloth and ashes sort of behaviour, asceticism more on the lines of John. So if we accept this bit as reflecting the real person, we need to come up with an explanation of how the two themes fit together.
The two extreme, opposite explanations are: it’s not an accurate reflection, or Jesus wasn’t into apocalypse, but his subsequent followers were. Now, if it’s not factually correct, how does this story get invented? Because it’s meant to reflect badly on Jesus that he wasn’t more like John. As such, it seems unlikely that his followers would have invented this contrast with John, especially if they were trying to woo John’s followers. The other possibility that Jesus himself wasn’t a preacher of apocalypse has to be considered. Then where did that come from? There are two possible sources. The first is Paul, who clearly expected the end-times. The second is that apocalypse is a distorted interpretation of Jesus’ talk about the kingdom. Because the relationship–if any–between the kingdom and the apocalypse/end times is very important to understanding Jesus and his teaching. There are a number of references in standard Q to the kingdom. Is this a code for the apocalypse? The answer to this question will color a lot of our understanding of what Jesus taught, or what his later followers taught that he taught. Clearly the message taught by Matthew was different–to some, to whatever degree–than the actual message of Jesus. But were the differences fundamental–apocalypse vs no apocalypse–or more cosmetic–apocalypse now vs apocalypse later? Or even the kingdom in this world, vs the kingdom in the afterlife?
A big part of the answer to this question depends, I think, on Paul. Why did he believe that Jesus was soon to return? Was this something in Jesus’ teaching that made him think so? Before answering that in the affirmative, one really has to consider Paul’s attitude towards Jesus’ teachings as a whole: he ignores pretty much everything Jesus taught. Given this, I think we are justified to suggest–at the bare minimum–that we need to ask the question if Paul didn’t make up the imminent return. That is, if this isn’t an idea that came to him in a flash of insight, or inspiration, much like the way he “saw” the resurrected Christ. This is, by his own description, how he came to most of the things he taught. There was little, if any, connexion to what the other groups taught. In fact, in significant ways, he taught the exact opposite of what the Jerusalem community taught. As such, I do not think we can simply take it on faith that Paul’s expectation of a quick return of the Christ was based in any way on what Jesus had said when he was still alive.
So that brings us (back) to a couple of our previous questions, First, what was the relationship between the teaching on the kingdom and the idea of the return of the Christ? We asked this earlier but it bears repeating because it is given additional significance if Paul did not get his certainty of the end times from anything Jesus taught. Second, did Jesus preach the end times? Did Jesus preach the kingdom? It would be very easy to answer this latter in the affirmative because so much of our source material tells us that he did. But we’ve caught Matthew making stuff up. How much else did he make up? How much did Mark make up? Personally, I suspect Mark was the more faithful reporter, largely because his work is so much less detailed. Generally, details aren’t remembered; they are created after the fact. Look at King Arthur, or the Song of Roland. The details accrued to the bare bones of the stories. A good story attracts embellishment; it doesn’t shed embellishment. The exceptions are some of the set-piece stories: the lowering of the paralytic, the bleeding woman and the daughter of Jairus, and, my favorite, the Gerasene demoniac. (Have I been spelling that rong this entire time? All too possible, I fear.) Those feel like they came down to Mark as blocks, as a finished product. Matthew shortened them. But Matthew added a wealth of other detail, namely detailed descriptions of Jesus speaking. The question, still, is: where did this new information come from? Not all of it came from Q, at least not from the original stratum as reconstituted by Burton Mack. But even that is said to date no earlier than the 50s.
So the point is, material is coming from a number of different places. Which leads to a number of questions. Such as, is it consistent? Can we expect consistency? Is consistency probable, given a number of different sources? And what did Matthew do with this variety of sources? Was he able to integrate them smoothly? Or do the seams and welds show through? What all this leads to is that we have some different questions to ask as we go through this gospel, and the other ones we read.
16 Cui autem similem aestimabo generationem istam? Similis est pueris sedentibus in foro, qui clamantes coaequalibus
17 dicunt: “Cecinimus vobis, et non saltastis; / lamentavimus, et non planxistis”.
18 Venit enim Ioannes neque manducans neque bibens, et dicunt: “Daemonium habet!”;
19 venit Filius hominis manducans et bibens, et dicunt: “Ecce homo vorax et potator vini, publicanorum amicus et peccatorum!”. Et iustificata est sapientia ab operibus suis ”.
Posted on April 23, 2015, in Chapter 11, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged Bible, Bible commentary, Bible scholarship, biblical scholarship, commenting, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's gospel, New Testament, NT Greek, religion, St Matthew, theology. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.