Matthew Chapter 12:22-37

This is another long section of Jesus talking.  In my red-letter edition, virtually this whole section is in red.

22 Τότε προσηνέχθη αὐτῷ δαιμονιζόμενος τυφλὸς καὶ κωφός: καὶ ἐθεράπευσεν αὐτόν, ὥστε τὸν κωφὸν λαλεῖν καὶ βλέπειν.

Then they brought to him one demonizing (being) blind and deaf. And he (Jesus) healed him (the possessed) so that the mute spoke and looked around.

Note the compression in this. The man with the demon is brought in, described, healed, and sent on his way in a single sentence. What is the implication here? It seems that Matthew is not interested in dwelling on the wonders worked. Forz Mark, these wonders were a major part of the story, but for Matthew they are something to be gotten through and brushed aside. Why? Remember that there were a number of wonder workers abroad in the First Century. I keep coming back to Apollonius of Tyana, but his story in outline is very similar to that of Jesus. I don’t need to remind anyone that, for Matthew, Jesus’ divinity goes back to his conception–at least. Jesus wasn’t adopted as a grown man the way he was in Mark.

22 Tunc oblatus est ei daemonium habens, caecus et mutus, et curavit eum, ita ut mutus loqueretur et videret.

23 καὶ ἐξίσταντο πάντες οἱ ὄχλοι καὶ ἔλεγον, Μήτι οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱὸς Δαυίδ;

And the whole crowd standing around being amazed and they said, “Is he not the son of David?”

This is an interesting connection being made. We have Jesus working wonders. Then we jump to the son of David. This latter, of course, is fraught with implications. The question is, can we assume that “son of David” = “the anointed”? On the one hand, it seems like a really obvious conclusion that we should draw. OTOH, we’re not concerned with what we think of it, but how would this have been taken by Matthew’s audience? Would that conclusion have been just as obvious to someone in the First Century CE? Or, can we even answer that question?  I’m not sure the answer to either of those is “yes”.  How much of this depends on whether Matthew was Jewish? Or whether his audience was predominantly Jewish? Remember, back when we read the Beatitudes, I suggested that the term “Christian” was probably appropriate for both the author and the audience of this gospel. I don’t think it was appropriate for Mark or the audience of his gospel. Do I still believe that? And this is a very important question because it has real bearing on whether “son of David” = “Messiah”.

The thing is, if Matthew can be called a Christian, then the chances of him drawing this conclusion is much higher than if he is not a Christian. Part of the very essence of being a Christian is the belief that Jesus was the Christ.  There’s more to being a Christian than this, because Paul believed it, and I don’t think the term Christian can be applied to him. But wait, there’s more. The idea of the Messiah was not a significant part of the HS. There are all sorts of allegories like Isaiah, and there are the apocalyptic writings of the last centuries BCE. As such, we have to ask if the idea of Jesus being the Messiah was harder for Jews to accept, or for pagans to accept. Given that most Jews of the First Century did not become followers of Jesus, I think the answer to this is pretty clear: it was harder for Jews to accept that Jesus was the Messiah than it was for Jews. 

Based on this, the logical deduction is that it’s more likely that Matthew was a pagan, rather than a Jew. Right? Not quite. Just because most Jews didn’t follow Jesus doesn’t mean that some Jews did. Matthew could have been one of the minority that did, so for him, I don’t know that we can draw any conclusions. I think it marginally makes it more likely that Matthew was a pagan, but it doesn’t preclude him being a Jew. I would ask to note that the little things that make it marginally more likely that Matthew was a pagan are beginning to add up. There have been a number of them. I do, however, think this helps explain why the message came to appeal more to pagans than Jews. I think that, as Jesus’ divinity became more of the accepted message, the attraction for pagans grew, largely  because a divine being on earth was not foreign to their mythology. Now, I’ve made a jump from “Messiah” to “divine being”; the two terms are not necessarily synonymous. But based on Matthew’s story so far, I think maybe the two had become entwined to a high degree. “Messiah”, I think, came to mean “divine” for them much in the same way it does for us. By the time Matthew wrote, we are as close to the earliest Christian writings as we are to Jesus. 

23 Et stupebant omnes turbae et dicebant: “ Numquid hic est filius David? ”.

24 οἱ δὲ Φαρισαῖοι ἀκούσαντες εἶπον, Οὗτος οὐκ ἐκβάλλει τὰ δαιμόνια εἰ μὴ ἐν τῷ Βεελζεβοὺλ ἄρχοντι τῶν δαιμονίων.

25 εἰδὼς δὲ τὰς ἐνθυμήσεις αὐτῶν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Πᾶσα βασιλεία μερισθεῖσα καθ’ἑαυτῆς ἐρημοῦται, καὶ πᾶσα πόλις ἢ οἰκία μερισθεῖσα καθ’ ἑαυτῆς οὐ σταθήσεται.

And the Pharisees hearing said, “He does not cast out demons except by (lit =in) Beelzeboul the ruler of the demons”. (25) Knowing their thinkings, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and every city or household divided against itself will not remain standing.

Can’t quite get the sense of the last verb. It’s a future passive, but with an intransitive verb (to stand). Oh well, can’t get them all.

This section, too, is mostly a direct copy from Mark. Jesus’ retort is elaborated a bit, but neither the content nor the overall implications have changed. I find it a bit odd that the Q proponents are so definite that the Q material is authentic, but they overlook stuff that’s in all three of the Synoptics, or at least in Mark and Matthew. Please don’t misunderstand; just because something is in two or more of the gospels does not mean that this material is corroborated. It’s not. [That’s the other reason that Q proponents insist that Luke was not aware of Matthew; that allows Luke to be an independent source. Unfortunately, this is, I firmly believe, simply wishful thinking,] If I had to pick a passage, or a quote that I thought was authentic Jesus, the “house divided” would be a strong contender. The biggest problem I see with accepting this as authentic Jesus is trying to figure out what it means. I mean, it makes sense in this context, but can we actually take the context at face value? 

To some degree, I think we can. In a way, the sort of awkwardness of the phrase, how it doesn’t fit in neatly with wisdom proverbs (can the blind lead the blind), or spiritual injunctions (blessed are the poor), and it’s certainly not apocalyptic. Quite the contrary, in fact. So what? Well, let’s note the context. Jesus is working a wonder. Later Christians never denied that pagans could work wonders, just as Pharaoh’s magician could turn his staff into a snake. The question was, who is power behind the wonder? Is it God? Or a demon? Even later Christians took magic very seriously, and fully believed that magic was efficacious; but it was also the work of the devil, and not a miracle from God. So this is what Jesus is being accused of: working wonders through demonic power. Not exactly earth-shattering stuff. But Jesus’ response is awkward at best: a house–even the house of Beelzeboul–could not stand if it’s divided. Is that what Jesus is really talking about? Or is this somehow a metaphor?

That Jesus would be accused of working wonders by way of demonic power makes perfect sense. And consequently it makes perfect sense that this story is in Mark, who was very concerned about Jesus’ miracles. But the “divided house of Beelzeboul” metaphor is ambiguous at best. And that ambiguity is what makes me suspect that this might be authentic. It’s rough, unpolished, and it puts Jesus into a position of being accused as one who consorts with demons. Of course, there is an air of “isn’t this accusation the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard?” about it, but the suggestion is still there. Is this an accurate reflection of how Jesus was viewed? Or maybe, the echo of an accurate reflection of how people–some people, anyway–saw Jesus? It might be. Look, if we can be convinced that some part of these stories has a 50% probability of being accurate, that’s about the best we can hope for. This one? I’d put it above 33%: a one in three chance of having at least a kernel of truth. “Blessed are the poor”, or “take up one’s cross”? Something less–probably considerably less–than 5% probable.

24 Pharisaei autem audientes dixerunt: “ Hic non eicit daemones nisi in Beelzebul, principe daemonum ”.

25 Sciens autem cogitationes eorum dixit eis: “ Omne regnum divisum contra se desolatur, et omnis civitas vel domus divisa contra se non stabit.

26 καὶ εἰ ὁ Σατανᾶς τὸν Σατανᾶν ἐκβάλλει, ἐφ’ ἑαυτὸν ἐμερίσθη: πῶς οὖν σταθήσεται ἡ βασιλεία αὐτοῦ;

“And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How would his kingdom be able to stand?

So yes, I think Jesus was accused of consorting with demons. This little addendum–which is in Mark also–is convincing. Not that Jesus said this necessarily–in all likelihood he didn’t. But that Mark and Matthew felt the need to add this for emphasis, to include this as relevant suggests that the accusation was real, and subsequent followers went to some lengths to come up with variations on the divided house metaphor to drive home the point. I think the probability may climb above 40% for the accusation, and I see no reason to doubt the retort.

26 Et si Satanas Satanam eicit, adversus se divisus est; quomodo ergo stabit regnum eius?

27 καὶ εἰ ἐγὼ ἐν Βεελζεβοὺλ ἐκβάλλω τὰ δαιμόνια, οἱ υἱοὶ ὑμῶν ἐν τίνι ἐκβάλλουσιν; διὰ τοῦτο αὐτοὶ κριταὶ ἔσονται ὑμῶν.

“And if I in Beelzeboul cast out demons, the sons of you in who do they cast out (demons)? Through this they will be your judges.

Huh? Your sons will be your judges? That’s a bit odd. We’re sort of getting into playground antics, kinderspiel, sort of “Oh yeah? So are you!” This is not something Jesus said. Matthew should have quit while he was ahead.

Of course a bit of reflection does bring up a different possibility. “The sons of yours” means, “your people”, whether that’s literal, or ethnic, or co-religionists. I think this is an indication that there were, indeed, other wonder-workers about,possibly/probably Jews, who were also expelling demons. Now, I’ve mentioned that it sure seems like First Century Judea/Galilee was suffering from an infestation of demons. And that demonic possession is not something that pagan authors mention. To the best of my recollection, even The Golden Ass doesn’t mention demons. But the authors of the NT are fixated with them. They’re everywhere. So it seems Matthew here is alluding to other wonder-worker/exorcists. Now is this one reason why those subsequent to Mark started to downplay the wonder-worker and focus on the divine aspect of Jesus? Even if they had to sort of create the divine aspect? Was this done to separate Jesus from the pack of other wonder-workers, mere wonder-workers? Peeking ahead, let’s remember Simon Magus from Acts. For chaps like him, working wonders was a source of income. Had wonder-working become something of a profession, perhaps slightly disreputable? So is Matthew sort of killing two birds with one stone here, pointing out that others drive out demons, but Jesus does it because he is the lord of the Sabbath? Because recall this section comes immediately after Jesus proclaims that the son of man is the lord of the Sabbath.

27 Et si ego in Beelzebul eicio daemones, filii vestri in quo eiciunt? Ideo ipsi iudices erunt vestri.

28 εἰ δὲ ἐν πνεύματι θεοῦ ἐγὼ ἐκβάλλω τὰ δαιμόνια, ἄρα ἔφθασεν ἐφ’ὑμᾶς ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ.

“But if in the spirit of God I cast out demons, therefore has not among you come the kingdom of God?

Well boy howdy, isn’t this a loaded question? I’ve forgotten where I read it, but someone suggested or argued that, for Mark, the wonders worked were the outward signs that the kingdom was imminent, or was even already here. Matthew is saying this explicitly. But note: Jesus does not say that the kingdom is at hand, or is coming, or will dawn when the son of man comes (or returns), it is here now. It is among y0u. That sure puts a different spin on things, doesn’t it?

28 Si autem in Spiritu Dei ego eicio daemones, igitur pervenit in vos regnum Dei.

29 ἢ πῶς δύναταί τις εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν τοῦ ἰσχυροῦ καὶ τὰ σκεύη αὐτοῦ ἁρπάσαι, ἐὰν μὴ πρῶτον δήσῃ τὸν ἰσχυρόν; καὶ τότε τὴν οἰκίαν αὐτοῦ διαρπάσει.

“For how is someone able to come into the house of a strong (man) and steal his good if he does not first bind the strong man? And then the house of him he may ransack.

What does this mean? I mean, yes, I get the analogy, but what does this have to do with the existence of the kingdom? How does this question & statement follow from the statement that the kingdom is among you? Offhand, I think this is referring back to Satan, that he is the strong man whose house is about to be robbed. How can Jesus cast out in the name of Satan without first having bound him? But that doesn’t quite make sense. So is this a reference to the kingdom? Grammatically, it seems like it should reflect back to one of these, but which? Once again, I think that the narrative flow of these couple of verses doesn’t quite make sense either. Once again, we have to wonder about the masterful arrangement of Matthew, when there are sections like this where Point B does not necessarily follow from Point A.

29 Aut quomodo potest quisquam intrare in domum fortis et vasa eius diripere, nisi prius alligaverit fortem? Et tunc domum illius diripiet.

30 ὁ μὴ ὢν μετ’ ἐμοῦ κατ’ ἐμοῦ ἐστιν, καὶ ὁ μὴ συνάγων μετ’ἐμοῦ σκορπίζει.

“The one not being with me is against me, and the one not gathering with me disperses.

The word here rendered as “disperses” is “skorpizo”, which sounds like the root of “scorpion”. Looking at the dictionary, however, it appears that there are two meanings diverging from the same root. The one, of course, deals with scorpions; the other is about scattering. Maybe there is some sort of deeper connection. Scorpions cause things to scatter?

But again, this feels like an aphorism that is sort of stuck in here without context. How does it connect to the strong man? Or does it reflect back to the kingdom, skipping over the strong man? In which case is it the strong man that is the thing that doesn’t go with the others in its immediate neighborhood. 

But this takes away from one of the more curious aspects of this. In Mark, not being with Jesus is the same as being with him; here, unless the allegiance to Jesus is explicit, it’s the same as being against Jesus. This is a much more defensive posture than Mark’s formulation. It reflects a much more hostile environment. For Mark the enmity has to be active; here, passive is enough to be on the other side. What happened in the meantime? This would seem to imply a level of animosity to the new sect, if not (necessarily) outright hostility. By whom? Surely this is no longer coming from Jews. The Temple and it’s power structure had been destroyed; nowhere did Jews have the civic authority to carry out persecution. Any sort of state-sanctioned persecution would have been the work of the Romans. Now, Matthew is likely writing during the reign of Domitian, and this emperor has been associated with persecutions of Christians.

The problem with this is that the evidence for this comes largely from Eusebios, who wrote several hundred years later. Then we have the famous letter of Pliny the Younger, written in the early part of the Second Century. In this letter Pliny seems a little bewildered about these Christians; not only does he not know what to do with them; he doesn’t seem to be terribly sure about what they are. Of course, the Romans did not keep extensive files on subject peoples and their exotic beliefs, so there was no one to brief Pliny when he assumed his duties. But still, this tells me that Pliny, an educated man who was the son of a famous father (Pliny Maior) who got about the empire to an extent beyond the experience of most, had not really encountered Christians in any meaningful way. In his request for instructions, he includes a very brief description of Christian beliefs. This, in turn, tells me that he doesn’t believe that the imperial staff–and the emperor himself–were all that aware of Christians, either. And it’s very relevant to ask if the Romans would really bother persecuting a group of people of whose existence they were scarcely aware? I mean, if I mounted a crusade to persecute Brobdingnagians, I suspect my cries would be met with a collective “What’s a  Brobdingnagian?” Why would the Romans have reacted any differently? And note that Pliny is writing a decade into the Second Century; the persecutions of Domitian would have occurred a generation before, so if the Christians are only showing up on the imperial radar in the Second Century, that doesn’t help an argument that they had been persecuted in the 90s.

So we have evidence that is at least conflicting, if not downright contradictory. I’ve read a good chunk of Eusebios; personally, I have serious reservations about his veracity. Or at least his accuracy. He was writing the “Official History Of The Christian Church”. He is the sole source for a lot of what he claims, much of which has been accepted as, well, gospel truth. The fact is, the earliest suggestion by a non-Christian author for persecution of Christians comes from Tacitus, who wrote a few years after Pliny. Projecting back, he says Nero blamed the fire of Rome on the “Chrestians” (note that he didn’t even get the name right), who were hated for their base passions (very weak translation, but Tacitus doesn’t always take well to translation). By that time, the “crime” was half a century old. But at the same time, how to explain the change in this passage? Or has Matthew–or his source–simply been careless in the way he presents the expression? 

The honest answer is that I don’t know. I’m suspicious of Christian testimony, but it likely wasn’t completely fabricated either. Some of this could be the memory of deteriorating relationships with the Jews, who may have been less than tolerant of a group they saw as…wrong. The Jews and the Samaritans didn’t get along, after all. And maybe this was the same sort of scorn for people who claimed to be Jewish–as the Samaritans sincerely believed themselves to be–but were not fully integrated with the Temple authorities. Or maybe the Christians absorbed the lessons of Saul, and extrapolated this to the wider world. But then, Acts presents the Romans as…what? At this point, I’m not familiar enough to make a judgement on that. We shall have to see.

30 Qui non est mecum, contra me est; et, qui non congregat mecum, spargit.

31 Διὰ τοῦτο λέγω ὑμῖν, πᾶσα ἁμαρτία καὶ βλασφημία ἀφεθήσεται τοῖς ἀνθρώποις, ἡ δὲ τοῦ πνεύματος βλασφημία οὐκ ἀφεθήσεται.

“Because of this I say to you, all sins and blasphemies will be removed from men, except the blasphemies against the spirit will not be removed. 

Right off the bat this gives me pause: because of this… The first word in the sentence, “dia” indicates a direct causal link. But look at the sentence before: the one not with me is against me. Because of this, all sins will be forgiven… Now, do you see the causal connection? If you are not with Jesus, you are against him, and because of that, all your sins will be forgiven. Or am I being too…Anglophone. Or too literal? Should we be taking this as “despite this…”? But all my crib translations render this as “wherefore/therefore”, and even St Jerome used “ideo”, which has basically that meaning. And “therefore” is used for a direct causal connection in English as well. Not that I am suggesting that this should read “despite this” instead of “because of this”; I’m just saying that, to my mind, “despite” makes more sense, unless I’m being needlessly literal. Bottom line is that this strikes me as another non sequitur. Unless this should be understood as sins will be forgiven because we are not with Jesus.

Well, now M Calvin has an interpretation of this. He would say, not that I’m being too literal, but too narrow. I’m assigning the causation to the sentence immediately before, whereas M Calvin says the “dia” should be applied to the entire passage, to everything Jesus has said since he knew the thoughts of the Pharisees. Jesus has set out an argument, and this is the conclusion, referring back to all that has gone before.

Sounds good, but what has gone before? Calvin interprets the strong man as Satan; coming directly after the verse about the kingdom, the idea is that the kingdom could not have come into existence unless Satan had first been nullified. Jesus can cast out demons because Satan has been neutralized. Fair enough. And this would explain the gather/scatter, and it would eliminate all implication of this referring to persecution, which in turn renders much of what I’ve said in commentary null and void. I say this because the one not with Jesus is Satan. This sounds sort of convincing, but I’m not sure I’m convinced. He has tied this together nicely, to a degree that I simply did not see.

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom32.ii.xiii.html

This still leaves the part about sins & blasphemies being forgiven because of all that has gone before. Oddly–or perhaps not so oddly–M Calvin ignores this, except to say that the causal factor is all that has gone before. Is that because Satan has been neutralized, and so the kingdom has become? I think we can read it that way, and such an interpretation is at least implicit in what Calvin has said about this so far. So this will teach me to read more deeply, one hopes.

Unfortunately, it feels like M Calvin goes off the rails. He gets hung up on why the blasphemies agains the spirit–or Spirit, as he believes, despite this being anachronistic–should be unforgivable while blasphemies against the Son and the Father are not. You can read his explanation. I don’t find it convincing because his conception of the Trinity is an anachronism. And pretty much everyone commits the same mistake, because this is universally rendered as the “Spirit”. 

So why are sins & blasphemies against the breath not to be forgiven? I’m not sure. But I do know that this is in Mark 3, just before his family comes to rescue him. Of course, that is omitted here; a divine being like Jesus would not need the intervention of his family to prevent something unpleasant from happening. If we think about the breath, this is the animating principle, and the sacred breath has been an animating principle since Genesis 1:2. This is the most direct emanation of God, the sole one that can touch humans, that can operate almost on the physical plane. Such a close connection is not to be taken lightly, I suppose. It’s an interesting question. But then, aren’t they all?

31 Ideo dico vobis: Omne peccatum et blasphemia remittetur hominibus, Spiritus autem blasphemia non remittetur.

32 καὶ ὃς ἐὰν εἴπῃ λόγον κατὰ τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, ἀφεθήσεται αὐτῷ: ὃς δ’ ἂν εἴπῃ κατὰ τοῦ πνεύματος τοῦ ἁγίου, οὐκ ἀφεθήσεται αὐτῷ οὔτε ἐν τούτῳ τῷ αἰῶνι οὔτε ἐν τῷ μέλλοντι.

“And the one who may say a word against the son of man, it will be taken away from him. The one who may speak against the sacred breath, it will not be taken away from him, nor in all of this age, nor in the one coming.

This sin is, as Mark said, eternal. Now, of course we “all know” that the age to come is the kingdom of God that will descend from the heavens as described in Revelations. But how does the age to come relate to the kingdom, which is already come? We latter-day Christians pretty much equate the two. Matthew apparently doesn’t. So what does this say about the kingdom? It puts the idea of Jesus (and John) preaching that the kingdom is nigh takes on a different flavour when read in the context of Verse 28 above. And yet, we still have in play the idea of a new age. I’m not entirely sure how to square this circle. But more, I’m not even entirely sure Matthew noticed the discontinuity he’s presented. So far, 12:28 is the only indication of the kingdom being now. Will there be others?

My sense is that 12:28 is some sort of aberration. After all, the Lord’s Prayer says “let thy kingdom come”, in the sense that this is something that has not happened yet. So the “age to come” that we have here is the more orthodox formulation, I think, of what Matthew believed and what was the general message of the nascent Christian belief. Yes, I realise that we can have all sorts of gradations of the becoming of the kingdom; that it is here as in 12:28 in the sense that a seed is in the ground, but that it will not attain full bloom until the next age. What all of this does for me is to reinforce that these were not systematic theologians. These were not ivory-tower intellectuals like…guess we really won’t get any of them for a while. Jerome and Augustine and Ambrose were all bishops actively engaged in the tending of their flock. It won’t be until the age of monasticism, when men of the Church removed themselves from the world that we will get a true Christian systematic theology in the sense that we know it.

32 Et quicumque dixerit verbum contra Filium hominis, remittetur ei; qui autem dixerit contra Spiritum Sanctum, non remittetur ei neque in hoc saeculo neque in futuro.

33 Ἢ ποιήσατε τὸ δένδρον καλὸν καὶ τὸν καρπὸν αὐτοῦ καλόν, ἢ ποιήσατε τὸ δένδρον σαπρὸν καὶ τὸν καρπὸν αὐτοῦ σαπρόν: ἐκ γὰρ τοῦ καρποῦ τὸ δένδρον γινώσκεται.

“Or you make the good tree and the fruit of it is good, or you make the worn-out tree and the fruit of it is rotten; for from the fruit you will know the tree. 

This, of course, is a fundamental of Christian ethics, and the reason why ethics and the code of behaviour is such an integral part of Christianity. It’s also where Christianity fall short so often. In that, Christianity isn’t any different from other religions. I won’t go into the either/or on this, because that really doesn’t pertain here. All Matthew–and Mark before him–are saying here is that we are what we do. This is where the evangelists most notably veer from Paul and his sola fides. But then, it could be argued that true faith creates works consistent with a Christian outlook. But that’s getting into the either/or, so we’ll leave it.

33 Aut facite arborem bonam et fructum eius bonum, aut facite arborem malam et fructum eius malum: si quidem ex fructu arbor agnoscitur.

34 γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν, πῶς δύνασθε ἀγαθὰ λαλεῖν πονηροὶ ὄντες; ἐκ γὰρ τοῦ περισσεύματος τῆς καρδίας τὸ στόμα λαλεῖ.

35 ὁ ἀγαθὸς ἄνθρωπος ἐκ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ θησαυροῦ ἐκβάλλει ἀγαθά, καὶ ὁ πονηρὸς ἄνθρωπος ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ θησαυροῦ ἐκβάλλει πονηρά.

“Brood of vipers! How can you speak good things being knavish? For from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks. (35) “The good man from the good treasure throws out good things, and the knavish man from the wicked treasure throws out bad things. 

This is the second of three times that Matthew uses the expression “brood of vipers”. I love the phrase, and I love it in those words, even if they may not be the very-most literal (like “knavish”). The first time, however, this was in the mouth of John the Dunker. It’s not in Mark, and Luke only uses it for John’s speech. Now, does this tell us anything about the sources for Matthew and Luke? In the Q reconstruction, this is seen as part of one of the later strata of Q. Obviously, it didn’t come from Jesus, but it is in Matthew and in Luke, so it’s from Q. And the fact that Luke only uses it in the context of John tells us that this was where Q had the expression. Right? Well, maybe not so fast. First we have to get past the whole idea of “strata” of Q. If Q was written in the 50s–or earlier–then when did these other strata accrue? Where did they come from? And how can a speech attributed to John be said to be the words of Jesus? Sorry. My take is that Matthew came up with this phrase, and liked it to the point that he used it three times. Luke used it for John, but maybe found it a little too harsh for Jesus, so only used it the once. Again, the real appeal of Q is that it allows Luke to be an independent source, one that thereby corroborates whatever else it shares with Matthew or Mark. If Luke read Matthew, we have, essentially, a single gospel tradition, and no more.

The second part is continues to reinforce the idea of the internal attitude, rather than the external actions, being what matters. We do what we are inside. If our hearts are full of evil, we will do evil things. If we’re full of good, we will do good things. This is more of the transition to a guilt culture. And as I’ve been going through the NT, I’ve been keeping Roman behaviour, norms, and mores in the back of my mind. The Romans were, to a large extent, still acting within a shame culture, at least to a much higher degree than Greeks, and certainly more so than Christians would be. For example, I believe it was Suetonius that said that, after being stabbed numerous times, when Julius Caesar fell to the ground, he made sure that he arranged his toga so that his legs were decently covered. Whether this is true or not doesn’t matter; either way, the values are made clear, and clearly the value is that of a shame culture. This is why I say that so much of the HS reflects an attitude that is not consistent with what was occurring elsewhere in the 7th or 8th Centuries BCE. 

34 Progenies viperarum, quomodo potestis bona loqui, cum sitis mali? Ex abundantia enim cordis os loquitur.

35 Bonus homo de bono thesauro profert bona, et malus homo de malo thesauro profert mala.

36 λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶν ῥῆμα ἀργὸν ὃ λαλήσουσιν οἱ ἄνθρωποι ἀποδώσουσιν περὶ αὐτοῦ λόγον ἐν ἡμέρᾳ κρίσεως:

37 ἐκ γὰρ τῶν λόγων σου δικαιωθήσῃ, καὶ ἐκ τῶν λόγων σου καταδικασθήσῃ.

“I say to you that all idle words which people speak they will give over about your word in the day of judgement. (37) “For from your words you will be justified, and from the word s of you (= your words) you will be condemned.”

Now that we realize that the day of judgement theme predates Jesus by a couple of hundred years, we don’t have to spend a lot of time discussing this in relation to what it says about the development of the message. This part of the message was there, pre-packaged, as it were, and ready to be bought off the rack (to mix metaphors). Jesus neither had to create nor develop it. And as we progress through this with this understanding that it was there, we can start to ask ourselves how much of this was an actual immediate expectation, and how much was simply a rhetorical device. Yes, the day of judgement was expected, but we have truly lost the sense of urgency about it. As such, it feels more like a rhetorical device than something that was an integral part of Jesus’ message. Now, what I’m actually saying is that it doesn’t feel as integral now that we’ve reached the time of Matthew. It may have been very different for Jesus; but then again, it may not have. It was different for Paul, but the change in tone between 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians is telling, too. The question then becomes, how deeply imbedded was this in Jesus’ teaching, and how much was brought to the forefront by Paul? Was he so affected by the resurrection of the body of Jesus that he was sure that the End was Near?

Instead, however, of trying to answer that now, we can look past the whole judgement thing and consider the rest of the message. We will be justified or condemned by our own words. This, obviously, flows from the passage before, where what comes out is a reflection of what is within. This takes us back to the either/or of the previous comment, the faith/works dichotomy. Of course, they don’t have to be a dichotomy, a fact which even Paul understood. So here again is the exhortation to good. Implied, of course, is the choice to do good. This could, but does not have to, take us to the free will/grace discussion: can humans choose good of their own accord? St Augustine would later say “no”, that a prior infusion of prevenient grace was necessary. But that is not what Matthew is saying here. Or rather, he’s not saying anything about choices. Rather, he is simply assuming that the choice can be, and actually is, a free one that we each make.  This, of course, takes us to the edge of the Predestination debate, but we’ll save that for Romans.

Here’s , perhaps, the oddest part of this. If you are at all familiar with St Augustine (I personally, am sort of on a nodding acknowledgement level), you know that he had an incredibly pessimistic view of the goodness of the human species. We are so depraved, he thought, that we all deserve damnation, and it was only because God was so loving that anyone was saved. And Luther famously said that he trembled when he thought that God was just. In this passage, we are nowhere near the point of either of these thinkers. The choice is free, we can make it. And we’d better make the right one, or our own actions will condemn us.

That is a very positive message, one very different from later thinkers like (especially?) Augustine. And we should also acknowledge that it’s rather different from what a lot of pagans thought. To some extent, the idea of free will came about in reaction to the pagan ideas that our lives were a matter of fate, or were simply random. It’s interesting how different the Latin and Greek terms are for these concepts. Fortuna vs. Tyche. Fortune vs Chance/Luck. Of course, Latin has that sense, too, but we’ve taken the positive aspect of it and turned in into “fortune”, as in “fame and fortune”, or “that’s worth a fortune”. The Latin term is more neutral, probably closer to our idea of “fate” than our idea of a “fortune” in monetary terms. The Greek Tyche, “luck” can mean something like “fortuna”, but it has a more random aspect to it. Stuff happens. We can’t control it. I have capitalised “Tyche” because Hellenistic Greeks personified (technically deified) the concept, taking it from an abstract and putting it into the divine.* The ideas presented here offer a means of escaping the impersonal, the random elements that “tyche” especially represented. The positive aspect of the message was, doubtless, very appealing. We like to feel like we’re in charge, that we can act in a meaningful way. In some ways randomness is the most horrific idea to humans; hence the appeal of conspiracy theories. With evil cabals running the show from behind the scenes, we can–rather perversely–take comfort from knowing that someone is in charge, is responsible for things happening the way they do, even if that someone is malicious and the events perpetrate evil.

Really, Paul’s message of faith in the Christ had much the same affect. You can’t hope to follow allof the Law; it’s too enormous. So get out from under all that and just believe. You can do that.

And there’s an interesting point in the discussion of Matthew the pagan. We had the bit about not an iota of the Law being dropped, and since then…nothing. Since way back in Chapter 6, we’ve not heard a peep about it. What does this silence tell us? To me it says that Matthew is not concerned with preaching to Jews, for whom the Law was the ideal. In fact, Matthew is not even writing for God-fearers any longer, for pagans who had attached themselves to synagogues to learn about Judaism. He’s not talking about the choice between the Law and the Christ. He’s talking only about Jesus, but in terms that are much more comprehensible to a pagan than to a Jew: a divine creature, sired by a god, but born of a human woman. In short, a demigod, or a Hero, in the technical sense like Achilles. The Pharisees are still there, still playing the role of foil, but in a much more generic way; they have almost become caricatures. Or maybe they have become something like the allegorical figures of Mediaeval times. Figures like Virtue, Poverty, Everyman. They are here, they were in the previous section of the man with the withered hand, but they’re more like cardboard cut-outs than a real presence the way they were in Mark. So here’s some more circumstantial evidence that we’ve passed the tipping point, that the new communities were comprised mainly, or even almost exclusively, of former pagans.

36 Dico autem vobis: Omne verbum otiosum, quod locuti fuerint homines, reddent rationem de eo in die iudicii:

37 ex verbis enim tuis iustificaberis, et ex verbis tuis condemnaberis ”.

[*Anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of Hellenistic philosophy may be cringing at the gross oversimplification of these concepts. I’m sort of cringing. But take it in these simplified terms, realizing that there is a lot more nuance to both of these words and concepts.]

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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 25, 2015, in Chapter 12, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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