Matthew Chapter 12:1-8

Now we begin Chapter 12. This first section will be fairly short; the next may be a bit longer.

1Ἐν ἐκείνῳ τῷ καιρῷ ἐπορεύθη ὁ Ἰησοῦς τοῖς σάββασιν διὰ τῶν σπορίμων: οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ ἐπείνασαν, καὶ ἤρξαντο τίλλειν στάχυας καὶ ἐσθίειν.

2 οἱ δὲ Φαρισαῖοι ἰδόντες εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Ἰδοὺ οἱ μαθηταί σου ποιοῦσιν ὃ οὐκ ἔξεστιν ποιεῖν ἐνσαββάτῳ.

3 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Οὐκ ἀνέγνωτε τί ἐποίησεν Δαυὶδ ὅτε ἐπείνασεν καὶ οἱ μετ’ αὐτοῦ;

In that season Jesus came on Sabbaths through the fields; his disciples hungered, and they began to pluck heads of grain and eat them. (2) The Pharisees seeing, said to him, “Look, his disciples do something that his not allowed to do on the Sabbath. (3) He said to them, “Did you not read what David when he was hungry and those with him?”

My apologies, but it’s pretty obvious that this event never actually happened. It is a made-up story, meant to illustrate a point, rather than to recount an event that actually happened. That they are walking through a field of ripe grain strikes me as odd. If it is ripe enough to eat raw, then why hasn’t it been harvested? Well, perhaps because it’s the Sabbath, and the owners of the field were waiting, in proper observation of the Sabbath, until the morrow to begin the harvest. This is certainly possible. But why are the Pharisees there on the Sabbath? Generally, in Old World farm communities, one lived in the village and walked out to the fields. This was why the invention of the horse collar in the 9th Century CE was such a huge technological breakthrough. Horses are much faster than oxen, so being able to use horse transport to get to and from fields meant that land much further from the village could be effectively cultivated, since much less time was required to travel to and from the village to the field, making the work day longer. So, why are the Pharisees able to see Jesus & the disciples as they walk through (probably alongside) the fields? OK, maybe the Pharisees are in a place at the edge of the village, where they can see the fields closest to the village. But we’re starting to accumulate improbabilities. Nothing is impossible; it could have happened, but there is a very artificial feeling being constructed. Then, Jesus is able to hear what they say. OK, perhaps Jesus divined their mood as he entered the village, passing by the place at the edge of town where the Pharisees had gathered. Some time could have elapsed, but the Pharisees were still in high dudgeon about the actions, and Jesus, of course, has the ability to understand what is in the hearts of those around him.

Which is another reason why I suspect the story didn’t happen. Maybe there’s a kernel of truth in here, but not much more. Rather, the point of this is to set up the comparison to David. Comparing Jesus to David, of course, occurred in Mark. The blind bar Timaios calls Jesus “son of David”.  In so many ways David was the central figure of the mythology of the HS. In many ways, he was more central than Abraham or Moses or Elijah. David is the King, the pinnacle of Jewish (mythological) history, the anointed of God, and Jesus is preaching the Kingdom. Jesus is of David’s house, as Matthew demonstrated in the birth narrative, but Jesus is also more than just a descendant. In many ways, he is David reborn, but a more elevated David. So this story has the feel of something invented to make the comparison, and then to take it a couple of steps further in the next few verses.

1 In illo tempore abiit Iesus sabbatis per sata; discipuli autem eius esurierunt et coeperunt vellere spicas et manducare.

2 Pharisaei autem videntes dixerunt ei: “ Ecce discipuli tui faciunt, quod non licet facere sabbato ”.

3 At ille dixit eis: “ Non legistis quid fecerit David, quando esuriit, et qui cum eo erant?

4 πῶς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκοντοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τοὺς ἄρτους τῆς προθέσεως ἔφαγον, ὃ οὐκ ἐξὸν ἦν αὐτῷ φαγεῖν οὐδὲ τοῖς μετ’ αὐτοῦ, εἰ μὴ τοῖς ἱερεῦσινμόνοις;

5 ἢ οὐκ ἀνέγνωτε ἐν τῷ νόμῳ ὅτι τοῖς σάββασιν οἱ ἱερεῖς ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ τὸ σάββατον βεβηλοῦσιν καὶ ἀναίτιοί εἰσιν;

[Jesus continues with the story of David on the Sabbath, saying to the Pharisees: did you not read ] “how he went into the House of God and the bread having been proffered/dedicated (to God) he ate, which he was not allowed to eat, nor those with him, unless one is the priest? (5) Or did you not read in the Law that on Sabbaths the priests in the Temple violate the Sabbath and are without guilt? 

 “Did you not read…?” I’m sure the evangelists had a lot of fun writing that. Honestly, this would have had a lot more impact had it first occurred here, rather than in Mark. But it did occur in Mark, in very much the same form, and the same words as it does here.  In Mark, the conflict with the status quo, with established religious practice is a pervasive theme. It crops up a half-dozen times in the first few chapters. Not so much in Matthew, but the latter dutifully repeats the story. In some ways, I think it almost stands out more here, perhaps because of the way Mark makes Jesus’ conflicts with the religious authorities a much bigger part of his story.

So what does it mean for Jesus to say this? In Mark, it’s Jesus showing up the powers-that-be, letting them know there’s a new sheriff in town. Jesus has a new message. Here, I think the emphasis is more on the scripture: the Pharisees don’t even know what’s in the Law. I say this with the idea that Matthew is the one bringing up numerous quotes from the HS. I say that because it’s not the wording of this particular passage, which hasn’t changed all that much from Mark, but because of the context that Matthew gives to the story and to the wording “did you not read”. Mark is more about Jesus superseding the HS; Matthew focuses more on the continuity between the HS and Jesus, how Jesus was foretold by the HS. This is due, largely I think, to the fact that Mark doesn’t really get around to the Christ part until later in the story, the middle chapter of 7/8/9, whereas Matthew leads with the theme right from the outset in Chapter 1.

So context matters. But the real payoff is coming.

4 Quomodo intravit in domum Dei et panes propositionis comedit, quod non licebat ei edere neque his, qui cum eo erant, nisi solis sacerdotibus?

5 Aut non legistis in Lege quia sabbatis sacerdotes in templo sabbatum violant et sine crimine sunt?

6 λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν ὅτι τοῦ ἱεροῦ μεῖζόν ἐστιν ὧδε.

7 εἰ δὲ ἐγνώκειτε τί ἐστιν, Ἔλεος θέλω καὶ οὐ θυσίαν, οὐκ ἂν κατεδικάσατε τοὺς ἀναιτίους.

“I say to you that the Temple is better (= greater >> more siginficant >> a better example) than this. (7) If you know what this is, “I wish compassion/mercy, not sacrfice, which will not condemn (lit = “judge down upon) the innocent.

I trust “the Temple is greater/more significant” is clear enough. Here, the disciples only took grain from a field. David violated the sanctity of the Temple. So that was much the bigger transgression.

But it’s V-7 that gets my attention. Once again, going back to my upbringing in the heart of the Roman Rite, I was given the impression that Judaism was all about formalized rituals. And that these rituals had become ossified into actions without meaning. The same is held about pagan religion by the First Century CE. Well, RL Fox proved the latter to be very much not true; this quote from Hosea 6:6 helps show how wrong the first belief is. Honestly, quotes like this are why I believe that most of the lesser prophets–and perhaps chunks of the greater–were written much, much later than the standard dates given. If you’ve ever read the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus, you will have a sense of the transition from shame to guilt culture.

This set of plays was written in the first half of the Fifth Century BCE; Aeschylus fought at the Battle of Marathon in 490; he was so proud of this that he commemorated his participation on his epitaph, and completely ignored the fact that he had written some of the seminal works of Western Civilisation. The sentiment expressed here in Hosea took place after that transition. Now, did the Greeks make the transition before the Hebrews? That’s a fair question, and one without answer. But I feel pretty certain that the Hebrews were not that far ahead of the Greeks, if they were at all. This may have predated Aeschylus by a decade or so. The return to Jerusalem dates to about 539; Hosea is typically put around 725. I can assure you that this sentiment was not written in 725 BCE. It much more likely dates to the first half of the Fifth Century, at the earliest. This represents the turning from ritualized sacrifice, which had been the mainstay of religious expression from time immemorial, to the internalized religion we know today.

Other cultures in the Ancient Mediterranean had not made the transition even at a time several centuries after Aeschylus. One thinks immediately of Carthage during the Punic wars–which occurred two centuries after Aeschylus, That was not a culture that had made the transition. Even Rome still clung to more of the shame-based value codes pretty much to the end of the Republic, and possibly beyond. One thinks of the Catos, Cato Maior–he of “Carthago delenda est” and even Cato Uticensis (The “c” in Uticensis is a hard “c”.) who committed suicide rather than live under the tyrant Caesar, a hundred years after his forebear died. Indeed, the Roman notion of the noble suicide carried through well into the Empire, and this is arguably a residual manifestation of a shame culture. I bring up these other cultures to point out the improbability of the Hebrews making the transition in the 8th Century, even the late 8th Century. No. This sentiment is much more in line with the social values expressed in Nehemiah and Ezra–both of which were written after the Second Temple was rebuilt. This would put them into the same time frame as The Oresteia. And Hosea, I think, comes after that. It fits much more comfortably with the Hellenistic world, I think, than the world of Assyria.

Besides. such a sentiment helps explain the thought-world into which Jesus was born. Sentiments like this are very similar to what Jesus would teach–or what we are told Jesus taught. They are akin to what the Stoics, and the Epicureans taught. This is the milieu that produced Jesus, and it shows that he was not the revolutionary thinker that I was told he was by those good nuns of the Roman Rite. And this is not a new understanding, as the last couple of decades have done wonders to fit Jesus into his Jewish background, so that we understand that much of what we (or I, anyway, given my upbringing) thought of as traditionally “Christian” values grew out of the Jewish social conscience. Nehemiah and Ezra should demonstrate this pretty definitively.

The upshot is that, once again, what Jesus taught may not have been all that remarkable. It fits with Jewish social mores, it fits with Hellenistic philosophy. So it leads once more to the question of, why was he remembered? What were those earliest communities teaching about Jesus? The ones that Saul was “persecuting”?

The earliest communities that we are aware of, that we have any knowledge of, are the ones started–or tended–by Paul, and the Jerusalem Assembly led by James the Just. The thing is, there’s a chance they were teaching very different things. However, this is not the time nor place. That will have to be examined as a special topic.

6 Dico autem vobis quia templo maior est hic.

7 Si autem sciretis quid est: “Misericordiam volo et non sacrificium”, numquam condemnassetis innocentes.

8 κύριος γάρ ἐστιν τοῦ σαββάτου ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου.

 “For the lord of the Sabbath is the Son of Man. 

8 Dominus est enim Filius hominis sabbati ”.

I left this in the order of the Greek, and for a very good reason (I hope). The way I rendered this is, strictly speaking, grammatically correct. But the usage is a bit off, the syntax is a bit odd; it’s perfectly fine in Greek, however. And what it does is provide a dramatic run-up: the lord of the Sabbath is–after this commercial message. Putting the actual subject at the end is a common rhetorical device that case languages use frequently. Some of Cicero’s speeches use this trick a lot, to build tension and keep the listener hanging on the speaker’s every word. It can be quite effective.

This is the payoff I promised earlier. Who is Jesus? The Lord of the Sabbath. Now this is directly out of Mark, so Matthew hasn’t really added anything. Up above, he played with the context to make his point more effectively than Mark had, to emphasize Jesus’ identity. Now, “lord” is a very common Jewish/Hebrew euphemism for “God”. So, the title “Lord of the Sabbath” clearly equates Jesus to God. This ties to the end of Chapter 11 in which Jesus equated the father and son. And I say “clearly”, because it’s pretty clear here in Matthew. It wasn’t quite that obvious in Mark.

So we have Matthew continuing his theme of Jesus-as-divine combined with Jesus-as-the anointed, and expanding into Jesus as God. We wonder where and when this line got crossed. I think it had to be sometime after 70, or at least after the death of James. During Mark and Paul, I argued that, as the one adhering more closely to the Jewish heritage, that James would have stuck to the human Jesus longer than others not so closely welded to the Jewish traditions, such as Paul and Mark. But Paul says that the resurrected Jesus appeared to James, so maybe that started to change, which is why Mark added this aspect to his tales of the wonder-worker. The thing is, after 70 much of the connexion, and many of those connected directly to Jesus would have been gone from the scene, and many more pagans would have joined the fold. A divine, even god-equal individual would not have been so alien to pagans. From Jesus-as-divine to Jesus-as-god to Jesus-as-God is not an implausible trajectory. It’s not a necessary one, but it’s internally consistent. In the latter stage, I think that we see the full impact of pagan thought on Jewish theology.

It’s no secret that Christian theology took the base-line of Judaism into places where the latter had never gone. This is what has necessitated the refitting of Jesus into his Jewish cultural heritage that we have seen in the past couple of decades, and it’s a correction that is long overdue. However, that is not a topic that concerns us directly here. At this point in the development of the NT, we are, I think, seeing the point where proto-Christianity makes a decisive break with its Judaic past, under the weight of pagan attitudes towards the divine. In fact, we should probably be calling it “Christian” thinking. With the melding of the ideas of the Beatitudes and the concept of Jesus-as-God I think we have definitely crossed into a true Christian set of beliefs.

That last is such a great summation sentence that I should really have ended it there. But there is one more aspect of this to consider. Again, tradition sets Matthew into the Jewish tradition. But if he is the one responsible for detaching Christian theology from its Jewish moorings, to the point of arriving at Jesus-as-God, I think we have to consider seriously whether Matthew was born a Jew, or if he had converted by way of being a God-fearer. Would it have been possible for a born-and-raised Jew to make the equation of Jesus with the Father? Well, I suppose. But I don’t think it’s particularly likely. I think it’s much more probable that a pagan would have made this step. Pagans were thoroughly accustomed to gradations of divinity, and from son of god to god wasn’t much of a leap. As such, I would say that the weight of probability is falling more heavily on the the side of Matthew having been a pagan. Yes, he could have just recorded what others were saying, but is Matthew simply a scribe of what’s going on around him? I don’t think so. I think Matthew, by his condensations and juxtapositions (his masterful arrangement of sources) shows himself to be a high-level thinker, and perhaps theologian. He did, I think, record things that came down to him even if he wasn’t always terribly successful in making them flow. But I think he does, on the whole, show us the mind of an organizer, of someone who was trying to weld these disparate and sometimes contradictory traditions into a unitary whole. 

I said that Mark was trying to create an orthodox position. I think the same is true for Matthew. Each took what was going on around him and tried to make it all fit together.

Advertisements

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 9, 2015, in Chapter 12, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: