Matthew Chapter 12:38-50

This will probably end up being another fairly long piece, unless I can find a break point somewhere in the middle. Jesus is still talking, and still talking to Pharisees, but this may be a  different group from the ones he was talking to about expelling demons. The context isn’t entirely clear. Whereas after the between the eating of the grain and the man with the withered hand Matthew tells us specifically that Jesus went somewhere else, we get no description of movement. But the transition is “then some of the…” What has happened is that Matthew has conflated two of Mark’s stories. The first–the withered hand–was in Mark 3. The request for the sign is in Mark 8. So Matthew brought over Mark’s transition phrase without undue care about how this affected the flow of the narrative. This tells us something about Matthew’s priorities, his process, and his judgement. I’m not sure what all the implications are, exactly, but it does reinforces–very strongly, I might add–that Matthew is not writing history. He is not concerned with the where and the when, but just the what. The chief concern of true history is the how and–especially–the why. We have none of that.

The other thing this says is that Matthew was not a terribly conscientious editor. The technique here is very much cut-and-paste; keep this in mind when you read about how “masterful” Matthew was in his arrangement of the Q material, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. During the Sermon I noted several times that it seemed things were cut-and-pasted together without a lot of care, and I’ve noted it several times again since. Granted, the last time I did this, earlier in this chapter, M. Calvin demonstrated how it all did hang together. Given that, I should probably take another look at the arrangement of the Sermon. Maybe I’m just too shallow an observer to pick up the unity of arrangement on the first go-round,

38 Τότε ἀπεκρίθησαν αὐτῷ τινες τῶν γραμματέων καὶ Φαρισαίων λέγοντες, Διδάσκαλε, θέλομεν ἀπὸ σοῦ σημεῖον ἰδεῖν.

39 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Γενεὰ πονηρὰ καὶ μοιχαλὶς σημεῖον ἐπιζητεῖ, καὶ σημεῖον οὐ δοθήσεται αὐτῇ εἰ μὴ τὸ σημεῖον Ἰωνᾶ τοῦ προφήτου.

40 ὥσπερ γὰρ ἦν Ἰωνᾶς ἐν τῇ κοιλίᾳ τοῦ κήτους τρεῖς ἡμέρας καὶ τρεῖς νύκτας, οὕτως ἔσται ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ τῆς γῆς τρεῖς ἡμέρας καὶ τρεῖς νύκτας.

 Then some of the Scribes and Pharisees responded, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” (39) And he responded to them saying, “Generation wicked and adulterous seeks a sign, and a sign cannot be had for it excep the sign of Jonah the prophet. (40) For just as Jonah (was) in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so too will be the son of man in the the heart of the earth three days and three nights.

Sorry to jump to the end in such fashion, but this jumped out at me. If Jesus died Friday afternoon, he was in the earth Friday night and Saturday night; that’s two by my count. So what happened here? Did someone just lose count? Or are we bumping into a variant tradition, in which perhaps Jesus was buried on Thursday, or was raised on Monday. There is some contention between John and the Synoptics about whether the Last Supper was the Seder, or whether it was the night before the day when the Seder would be held. And, to be technical, Jesus was really only in the heart of the earth for something closer to 48 hours than to 72, which is three days. Granted, he was in the tomb for parts of three days, but…but this is being ridiculously over-technical, to the point of absurdity. What we should glean from this is that this is another post-facto prophecy, and that the actual number of days Jesus was in the tomb was probably fluid, or dependent on inclusive vs exclusive reckoning. It is, in short, more proof that this is not history.

More to the point is that Jesus explains what he means by the sign of Jonah, so we don’t need to spend much time on the symbolism. Rather, we need to ask what is meant by the Scribes and Pharisees asking for a sign. But then, this is not so difficult, either. Here, I think, is where we have Matthew and Mark explaining why pagans were becoming followers of Jesus, but, by and large, Jews were not. Paul mentioned this in 1 Corinthians: Greeks want an explanation and Jews want a sign. Well, here we have them asking for it. And Jesus denies them one, except in roundabout terms. The point of this, I think, is to show how blind they were, perhaps willfully blind, not to see what had been shown to them. They asked for a sign; they got the resurrection, and they did not believe that greatest of all possible signs. By inference, it’s pretty easy to date this to a period well after Jesus’ death, to a point where followers of Jesus were becoming increasingly untethered from their Jewish roots. Now this was in Mark, so it’s not new with Matthew, but it’s probably doubly true for the latter.

However, the bit about the sign of Jonah is new with Matthew. And it’s in Luke. Does this mean it’s in Q? I don’t recall seeing this in the hypothetically-reconstituted Q. So what, then? Where did it come from if Luke didn’t get it from Q? Hmm….could he have gotten it from Matthew? Oh no, of course not.

But enough snark. Here’s the thing: the gospel of  Matthew has added a number of such references to the HS. Who was the HS scholar? Traditionally, this was, of course, ascribed to Matthew. He has traditionally been seen as a Jew who was very well-versed in the OT, sort of a rabbi-type. But then think about that: whether or not Matthew began life as a Jew or a pagan, the fact that he spent a serious amount of time combing through HS in order to come up with these semi-obscure (Hosea?) references so he could use them as he wrote his gospel…doesn’t that throw sand in the gears of the argument for Q? Think about that. If Matthew is doing all this research and adding all these HS references, doesn’t this imply that he’s much more original than Q would give him credit for? I haven’t developed the full panoply of my argument on this, but I think that we have to consider the implications. The idea has long been Mark + Q = Matthew. Well, if Matthew is doing all this other stuff, then the credit that should be given to Q diminishes–significantly–IMO.

38 Tunc responderunt ei quidam de scribis et pharisaeis dicentes: “ Magister, volumus a te signum videre ”.

39 Qui respondens ait illis: “ Generatio mala et adultera signum requirit; et signum non dabitur ei, nisi signum Ionae prophetae.

40 Sicut enim fuit Ionas in ventre ceti tribus diebus et tribus noctibus, sic erit Filius hominis in corde terrae tribus diebus et tribus noctibus.

41 ἄνδρες Νινευῖται ἀναστήσονται ἐν τῇ κρίσει μετὰ τῆς γενεᾶς ταύτης καὶ κατακρινοῦσιν αὐτήν: ὅτι μετενόησαν εἰς τὸ κήρυγμα Ἰωνᾶ, καὶ ἰδοὺ πλεῖον Ἰωνᾶ ὧδε.

42 βασίλισσα νότου ἐγερθήσεται ἐν τῇ κρίσει μετὰ τῆς γενεᾶς ταύτης καὶ κατακρινεῖ αὐτήν: ὅτι ἦλθεν ἐκ τῶν περάτων τῆς γῆς ἀκοῦσαι τὴν σοφίαν Σολομῶνος, καὶ ἰδοὺ πλεῖον Σολομῶνος ὧδε.

The men of Nineveh will stand in the judgement with this generation and they will condemn it (They = the men of Nineveh; it = this generation); that they will repent to the proclamation of Jonah, and, behold something greater than Jonah here. (42) The Queen of the South will be raised in the judgement with (= in relation to) this generation and she will judge it; that came from the boundaries of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold something greater than Solomon here. 

Here’s the question: how likely is it that Jesus would have compared himself to Jonah and Solomon and judged himself to be greater? Bear in mind Burton Mack’s comparison of Jesus to a Cynic sage while recalling that these men were not noted for modesty. And note that modesty is a Christian virtue, not a trait highly regarded by the ancient world. It is possible that Jesus could have said something so brash, but I don’t believe it’s very likely. As I said in the last comment, this whole discussion feels like something that followers created at a later date. This part about Jonah and Solomon, as we noted, is not in Mark, and it’s not generally included in the early stratum of Q. Given these two bits, I think it’s a fairly good bet that Matthew himself wrote these past few verses. I’ve mentioned numerous times that, for pagans, old was good; the God-fearers respected Judaism in large part because of its (ostensible) age. So Matthew is tying Jesus to this “ancient” tradition, and then he’s taking Jesus as one better. This would be very impressive for his audience.

At the same time he’s doing this, Matthew is diminishing the stature of the Jews. Is he doing this knowingly? Most likely. They do not see the implications that Matthew is pointing out. They had not seen the signs–the three days in the heart of the earth–and hearkened to them. All of the signs had been there for them, and the Jews neglected them all. And this is by definition, since they were still Jews. And I think this tells us that the followers of Jesus weren’t seeing themselves as true Jews, or as truly Jewish, any longer. They were part of that tradition, their roots went that deep, but the flowering from the branches exceeded the root tradition. IOW, they were seeing themselves pretty much as Christians came to see themselves. As such, I think we have more indication that, with Matthew and his audience, the term “Christian” is not inappropriate, and is probably accurate. At least, one can present a decent argument that these are Christians. It may not be fully convincing yet, but the case is strong.

This diminution of the stature of Jews, of course, is most clear from the fact that those wicked men of Nineveh will condemn “this generation”. Recall that the capital of Assyria was held by the writers of the HS as a sinkhole of depravity. Here it was that Jonah went to preach. So daunting was the task that he tried to run away, which led to the incident of being swallowed by the whale. But I’m sure many of you know much more about that than I do. The point is, Jonah was successful to a degree, but for “this generation”, Jesus appears to have failed utterly. And yet, “this generation” had a sign so much more powerful than what the Ninevites were given, and yet the latter did repent. “This generation” did not. Nor did they recognise a wisdom greater than Solomon’s, while the Queen of Sheba (great piece called “The Entry of the Queen of Sheba” by GF Handel) fully understood the divine nature of Solomon’s wisdom. So “this generation” again comes off looking bad by comparison. 

If you’ll recall, when discussing Mark, I made the point numerous times that Mark was taking pains to excuse the Romans from any guilt in the execution of Jesus. At the same time, Mark took pains to note that his group weren’t really Jews. In light of these passages, I have to wonder how much of what Mark did was to remove approbation from his group by dissociating them from the Jews who had rebelled, and how much was already this sense that the Jews had missed the point. I’m truly not certain where the line is. My suspicion is that this undocking from Judaism was a gradual process; but that’s no great pronouncement on my part. Most historical processes are gradual. It may be, though, that the Jewish War was one of those events that brought a process into terrible clarity. An analogy might be the attitude towards monarchy as the 19th turned into the 20th Century. A growing body of people felt that it had outlived its raison d’etre, but it took the cataclysm of WWI to sweep it away completely. By this analogy, Mark was writing after the war, but his mindset had been largely determined by pre-war experience. The war accelerated and crystalized something that had been happening for some time; certainly since the death of James the Just. And Mark himself may not have been aware of the full implications of his attempted dissociation; he was certainly conscious of needing to get out from under the animosity felt towards Jews by the Roman establishment, but he may have been unconscious of how the gulf between Jews and Christians had grown a good deal beyond that. These are the sorts of things that often only become conspicuous in retrospect, so that later observers wonder how those living through the time had missed such an obvious development.

Final word: note that it’s the men of Nineveh. The word used is << aner/andros>>, which has the connotation of a manly man. This is in contrast to <<anthropos>> which has more the idea of human-kind. The same distinction holds in Latin, where the former is <<vir>> (think: virile) and the latter is <<homo>>. So it’s the manly men of Nineveh, the distinction meaning that no women or children would be doing this judging.

41 Viri Ninevitae surgent in iudicio cum generatione ista et condemnabunt eam, quia paenitentiam egerunt in praedicatione Ionae; et ecce plus quam Iona hic!

42 Regina austri surget in iudicio cum generatione ista et condemnabit eam, quia venit a finibus terrae audire sapientiam Salomonis; et ecce plus quam Salomon hic!

43 Οταν δὲ τὸ ἀκάθαρτον πνεῦμα ἐξέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, διέρχεται δι’ἀνύδρων τόπων ζητοῦν ἀνάπαυσιν, καὶ οὐχ εὑρίσκει.

44 τότε λέγει, Εἰς τὸν οἶκόν μου ἐπιστρέψω ὅθεν ἐξῆλθον: καὶ ἐλθὸν εὑρίσκει σχολάζοντα σεσαρωμένον καὶ κεκοσμημένον.

45 τότε πορεύεται καὶ παραλαμβάνει μεθ’ ἑαυτοῦ ἑπτὰ ἕτερα πνεύματα πονηρότερα ἑαυτοῦ, καὶ εἰσελθόντα κατοικεῖ ἐκεῖ: καὶ γίνεται τὰ ἔσχατα τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκείνου χείρονα τῶν πρώτων. οὕτως ἔσται καὶ τῇ γενεᾷ ταύτῃ τῇ πονηρᾷ.

“When an unclean spirit goes out of a person (here, <<anthropos>>) it passes through an arid area/place seeking respite, and it does not find it (a place to rest). (44) Then it says, “To the home I will return when I left. And coming it finds (the domicile) unoccupied, having been swept and having been set in order. (45) Then it come and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and going in they take up residence there. And in the end that man having become worse than before. In this way it will be for this wicked generation.  

Have to admit I’ve always found this story a bit odd. The demon leaves, can’t find a better host (thinking the demon is like a parasite here), so it returns. The “domicile” (meaning the host) unoccupied, but swept and in order, it returns with seven spirits even worse. The point, I suppose, is that this generation somehow got rid of its evil spirit, but it has returned with a vengeance. The question, I think, is what this spirit represents. According to M. Calvin, the “man” is the entire human race, all the progeny of Adam. The coming of Jesus allowed humans to be rid of their evil spirits; but too often, the spirit having been expelled, the human vessel is not filled with the presence of God (grace), so that the evil is able to return seven (or however many) times worse.

I think this mostly makes sense. The present generation had its chance; it could have–did–expel the demon, by ignoring who Jesus was, they killed Jesus, having become seven times worse. Makes sense. As such, and perhaps more importantly for our purposes, it continues the theme of the Jews having been superseded; but the bit about the Jews being worse than before adds something of a new wrinkle to all of this. This section is not in Mark, but it is in Luke. Taken all together, I think we’re looking at a significant change in the attitude towards the Jews. Mark talked about “this adulterous and sinful generation” which is obviously very negative in terms of attitude. But this attitude has gotten worse in the intervening decade.The Jews are not neutral, or merely as bad as they were. Instead, they are actively and significantly worse than before. IOW, we’re starting that long, sickening slope that ends up with judicial murders and pogroms of Jews at the hands of their Christian neighbors. 

This occurs to me: the Ninevites and the Queen of the East are non-Jews. Not only is the preference for non-Jews the way of the future; it’s been made retroactive. 

43 Cum autem immundus spiritus exierit ab homine, ambulat per loca arida quaerens requiem et non invenit.

44 Tunc dicit: “Revertar in domum meam unde exivi”; et veniens invenit vacantem, scopis mundatam et ornatam.

 45 Tunc vadit et assumit secum septem alios spiritus nequiores se, et intrantes habitant ibi; et fiunt novissima hominis illius peiora prioribus. Sic erit et generationi huic pessimae ”.

46 Ἔτι αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος τοῖς ὄχλοις ἰδοὺ ἡ μήτηρ καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοὶ αὐτοῦ εἱστήκεισαν ἔξω ζητοῦντες αὐτῷ λαλῆσαι.

47 [εἶπεν δέ τις αὐτῷ, Ἰδοὺ ἡ μήτηρ σου καὶοἱ ἀδελφοί σου ἔξω ἑστήκασιν ζητοῦντές σοι λαλῆσαι.]

48 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν τῷ λέγοντι αὐτῷ, Τίς ἐστιν ἡ μήτηρ μου, καὶ τίνες εἰσὶν οἱ ἀδελφοί μου;

49 καὶ ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ τοὺς μαθητὰς αὐτοῦ εἶπεν, Ἰδοὺ ἡ μήτηρ μου καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοί μου:

50 ὅστις γὰρ ἂν ποιήσῃ τὸ θέλημα τοῦ πατρός μου τοῦ ἐν οὐρανοῖς αὐτός μου ἀδελφὸς καὶ ἀδελφὴ καὶ μήτηρ ἐστίν.

When he having said this to the crowd, look, his mother and his brothers stood around seeking to speak to him. (47) Someone said to him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing about seeking to speak to you”. (48) He answering said to the one speaking to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?  (49) And stretching out his hands towards his disciples, “Look, (these are) my mother and my brothers”. (50) “For whoever does the will of my father in the heavens, this one is my brother and my sister and my mother”.

46 Adhuc eo loquente ad turbas, ecce mater et fratres eius stabant foris quaerentes loqui ei.

47 Dixit autem ei quidam: “ Ecce mater tua et fratres tui foris stant quaerentes loqui tecum ”.

48 At ille respondens dicenti sibi ait: “ Quae est mater mea, et qui sunt fratres mei? ”.

49 Et extendens manum suam in discipulos suos dixit: “ Ecce mater mea et fratres mei.

50 Quicumque enim fecerit voluntatem Patris mei, qui in caelis est, ipse meus frater et soror et mater est ”.

 This is another instance where Matthew has provided an abridged version of Mark’s story. Matthew added the bit about the unclean spirit with its seven colleagues, but he shortened this section of the story. What he’s doing is re-arranging Jesus’ reputation, the highlights of Jesus’ life and career. No–he’s attempting to alter the perception of Jesus’ life and career and teachings. Here he’s removing a section of the story that deals with Jesus’ humanity: that his family thought Jesus needed to be removed from a hostile environment. Due to this excision, Jesus becomes a very different type of being than he is in Mark. Much has been made of how Matthew tones down the times in Mark when Jesus gets angry or exasperated, especially with his disciples. The abridgement here is of a piece with those sorts of edits. By making Jesus less human, he becomes more divine, which is more in keeping with the perception that Matthew is trying to create.

This seems to be going out with a whimper rather than a bang, but much of this has been covered in Mark. And besides, without the extrication of Jesus from the hostile crowd, the story becomes somewhat less layered, or textured. As such, it’s–perhaps–a bit less interesting.


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 June 2, 2015, in Chapter 12, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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