Summary Matthew Chapter 11

This chapter was not particularly long (30 verses), and, perhaps as a result, it is thematically fairly uniform. In fact, it’s almost to the point of a single theme: the end times.

We started with John asking “are you the one?” This set the tone, because this is not an idle question. We then get to citations of Isaiah and Malachi, both of them predicting the signs of the end times, or even, per Malachi, Judgement Day. To my mind, this quote from Malachi was a real eye-opener. I believe it’s one of the most significant citations of HS that we’ve come across so far. The date that the book of Malachi was written is subject to a lot of conjecture. It had to have been written after the Second Temple was completed in 515 BCE. It uses the Persian term for governor, which nominally puts it sometime before 330 (approx) BCE, when the Persians were overthrown by Alexander. However, note that these are what are called termini post quem; they must date after these two things: after the rebuilding of the Temple and after a Persian governor was installed. However, there is no real terminus ante quem, a point before which this had to be completed. Such an event would be an extremely significant event; well, we could say it had to take place before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, but that doesn’t help us much.

Similarities with Nehemiah have led many to believe that it falls into the 400s BCE; however, there s a marked tendency in Biblical scholarship to date the writing of a book to the time in which the events described took place; on this analogy, Daniel was written during the Exile, when use of Greek terms for musical instruments would put it significantly later. I tend to think that a lot of the HS dates to periods later than generally thought. I base this opinion on the inference that much of the “history” in the HS is nothing of the sort. For example, Judges supposedly relates events that occurred in the 1200s BCE, but there is a reference to iron in Chapter 1 that puts it significantly later than that. I have experience with the early books of Livy, who wrote a history of Rome ab urbe condita: from the founding of the city. Most of the history in these early books is borderline nonsense. Even the events of the first century of the Republic–the same period in which Malachi was supposedly written–is legendary at best, fiction at worst. And Rome actually had reasonably good documentation. The fact of the matter is that the HS–and the NT–are primarily religious works; any history contained is incidental and almost beside the fact. In some ways, Malachi could easily fall into the period of the Selecucids, or even later.

The eternal theme–the tendency of Israel (actually, Judah) to abandon YHWH for foreign ways and gods. This scenario is true for almost the entire history (which is much, much shorter than the HS would have us believe) of the “kingdom” of Judah. During the early 1970s in the USA, there was sort of a moratorium on making movies about Vietnam. So war protest movies were set in the Korean War (M*A*S*H) or even WWII (Catch-22). So setting the action of Malachi during the Persian occupation could be a way getting a message about the current situation across allegorically: Hey, this isn’t about now. It’s about what happened a century ago. Any resemblance to the current situation is purely coincidental. Honest!

Just as honestly, an earlier date would actually suit my point as well as the much later date that I suspect. My point is that the existence of Malachi, and it’s predictions of Judgement Day really have to make us stop and reconsider our attitude towards Jesus as a preacher of apocalypse. What I think Malachi shows-and demosnstrates pretty conclusively–is that the idea of a coming apocalypse, a coming Judgement, was thoroughly ingrained into mainstream Jewish thought (whatever that’s supposed to mean) by the time Jesus lived. As such, by talking about a kingdom to come, Jesus may not have been talking about something alien, or even novel, to the minds of his contemporaries. If this is true, then there are several implications. First and foremost, it could mean that Jesus may not have had an interpretation on the topic that was terribly different from that of a dozen other preachers of his time. But that’s not the end of it: Jesus himself may not have really had anything particular, or specific, in mind when he talked about the kingdom. He may not have had a terribly clear notion of what he meant himself. Think about that for a moment or two. Far from being a central part, an integral part of his teaching, this may have been a fairly vague concept that really didn’t have any unique, or even new, aspects to it. Just as the idea of redemption, or repentance may mean a lot of different things to different people, so might the idea of a kingdom to come have meant a lot of different things to the various people who heard the message. In fact, it may have meant different things, at different times, for Jesus himself.

This would explain a few things–or at least one big thing. This lack of specificity would very effectively explain why it’s so hard to piece together what Jesus has in mind when he talks about “the kingdom”, or “the life”, or “saving one’s soul”. I’ve commented on this a few times, about how difficult it is to figure out what, or how exactly one becomes worthy of the kingdom, or rather, what it means to be worthy of the kingdom. It was’nt spelled out in Paul, or even Mark, and hasn’t so far in Matthew–and I suspect won’t be; of course, I could be wrong about that. i can’t figure out what Jesus means because he really hasn’t thought it through and come up with a meaning.

We started with John’s question. Jesus answered by citing Isaiah and Malachi. What Jesus quoted are the signs that Isaiah’s coming of the Lord, and Malachi’s Judgement Day are approaching. Jesus is ticking off the warnings on the list of the prophecies, all of which point to this. But…what will happen? If you stop to think, that question isn’t answered until Revelations. The time of troubles in Mark was hindsight, not a foretelling. Paul is the most specific when he talks about the Lord coming down with the angels on a cloud, and all the faithful rising up to meet him. But we have no real indications–nothing truly definitive–that Mark and/or Matthew were aware of anything Paul wrote. Even then, if I knew my HS better, I would perhaps be able to tell you that Paul got this imagery from the HS. By paying attention to the quotations cited, I’ve come to realize just how much of “Jesus'” message is actually stuff that’s in the HS. IOW, much of Christianity is not new at all; it’s just Jesus’ Jewish heritage coming through.

And while we’re on the subject of John, let’s not forget what his message was. He preached repentence; what did Malichi, and Isaiah, and countless other Hebrew prophets preach? Repentence, of course. And Isaiah and Malachi specifically connected this repentance with a divine event. Jesus continues this (Mk 1:14-16), preaching the coming of the kingdom, which means we should repent. Now, we are not told specifically that John preached the kingdom/day of the Lord/Judgement Day, we have such events preached both before John by prophets, and after John by Jesus. It doesn’t take any great act of logic to fill in the blank and infer that John had such a message, too. The standard Hebrew prophet preached repentance to regain the favour of YHWH. Is that such a big step from the concept of the kingdom? Yes, it’s a step. But how big of a step? The point of all of this is to demonstrate that a coming divine event–a kingdom?–was simply an expectation. It was expected by so many Jews that this aspect of Jesus’ teaching was not anything remarkable so it required no elaboration of teaching. But, I suspect, it would have been remarkable had Jesus not included this in his teaching.

The point is that maybe we should not look too deeply into this teaching of the kingdom. We may not find a coherent answer

But–this message of the kingdom would have been novel for a different audience — pagans. This raises the question of, if Matthew was writing for pagans, and was a former pagan, why didn’t he feel the need to explain the kingdom more fully or effectively. It’s an excellent question. It’s one that I should feel obligated to answer if I’m going to be convincing with my poistion/argument about this. At this point, I don’t have an answer; but, with luck and some more reading and consideration, perhaps  I’ll come up with one. Answers to questions have presented themselves as I’ve gone along. And, if I don’t–or can’t–answer this, then I have to reassess my position on this; but no biggie. I am obligated to reassess in light of all new evidence, or lack thereof.

Another implication would be the need to look again at the message of Mark. If Jesus was not remarkable as a preacher of apocalypse, why did people continue to remark on him after his death? Let me rephrase that: if Jesus was just another preacher of apocalypse, what made him special? Why did his message catch on, and not someone else’s? For much of Mark, the answer to that seems to be that he was a worker of wonders. That, apparently, is how he was remembered by a great many people. So many, in fact that they represented a very strong tradition, perhaps the primar tradition until the Christ-belief gradually took over. The Christ tradition, of course, began with Paul, was carried forward by Mark, and then either merged with an existing tradition of Jesus-as-Divine, or this latter was created by Matthew. Without really analysing, or bothering with anything like evidence or arguments, my suspicion is that this tradition, if not entirely created by Matthew, was finalized, and formalized, and canonized by Matthew.

This idea needs to be pursued further, but it’s probably out of scope for this summary. It’s a wild goose I want to chase, but I need to mention one more thing and then wrap up. Regarding the section of the “woes” to the various towns, I do believe this is meant to be taken, or should be taken as the passing of the torch to the pagans from the Jews. The time of the latter as followers of Jesus has largely passed. The community of Jerusalem, the heart and soul of the movement for the first several decades, is defunct by the time Matthew wrote. The combination of the death of James, followed fairly soon by the Jewish War and the destruction of the city ended Jerusalem’s primacy, and the death of James likely removed the major figure who was keeping the Jesus movement anchored in Judaism. But both anchors, James and the city were gone, and the movement dispersed to the outlying churches. And this meant more pagans, and this meant that the tipping point of the membership to predominantly pagan had passed by the time Matthew wrote. For Mark, when he wrote, I suspect he saw that the future of the church was with the pagans, which meant he had to explain why it had not caught on among Jews. Hence, the great secret of Jesus. He attracted huge crowds, but kept the secret to himself so that the Jews didn’t catch on. That, of course, is speculation, but I think it’s pretty clear here in Matthew that he’s got a largely pagan audience in mind. Whether or not Matthew started life as a pagan or a Jew is something to be argued; to this point, it’s been assumed, and that is not how it should be done. The woes to the towns of Galilee can tell us that their moment as centres of the Jesus movement had passed, but the woes don’t provide much insight about Matthew’s personal origins.

Almost forgot! Perhaps the most theologically significant aspect of this chapter is the identification of the father and the son.  Mark would never have made this statement. We know this because Mark clearly didn’t make a statement to this effect. Ergo, the identity of Jesus had undergone a radical transformation between Mark and Matthew. Hence the birth story, and this equation of father and son. in Mark, Jesus, or the “Son of Man” was clearly acting on behalf of the Father, but that’s just it: the Son of Man was the Father’s agent. He did not know the hour of the time of tribulation. Here, however, the Son has been given all by the Father. There are no secrets. The birth narrative, while demonstrating Jesus’ divine nature, still leaves him in the role of the Greek heroes: one divine and one human parent. This is a step beyond the adoptionism of Mark, but it’s not the Eternal Logos of John. But with the divine birth and the equation of the Son and Father, we’re now closer–much closer–to the latter than we are to Mark. The needle has moved a very long way.

So lots of themes that bear watching.


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 May 5, 2015, in Chapter 11, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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