Summary Matthew Chapter 12

My apologies, but for some reason this took a long time to write., Yes, it was a long chapter, but much of the material was in Mark; so there was, perhaps, less to be said about it than might otherwise have been the case. And despite the length, much of the chapter is unified around a single theme and its corollary. The theme is Jesus’ identity, and the corollary is the relationship of Jesus–by virtue of having established his identity–to his contemporaries. In particular, it’s a lot about Jesus vis-à-vis Jews, whether as a whole or especially to the Jews of Matthew’s generation.

That is the thematic method. From a physical point of view, the perspective of the actions that bring out the themes, the chapter is organised around four different interactions with four nominally different groups of Pharisees. The latter witness and largely object to Jesus’ actions. They are the foil against whom Jesus is able to contrast himself. Here perhaps we see the “masterful organization” of Matthew, because what he is doing here is summarizing. By bringing together these four episodes, he’s made this contrast the theme of the chapter. The Pharisees are proxies for the Jews as a whole, and for this generation of Jews in particular.

In the minds of many later Christians, the Pharisees became the representatives of everything wrong with Judaism at the time of Jesus. More, they came to be associated with the Jewish authorities as a unit. This last is manifestly wrong; they were a sect, and not the group in Jerusalem that collaborated with the Romans to rule the province. As such, the idea in V-14 that they entered a plot to kill Jesus is extremely misleading at the very least. “Pharisees” as such had no authority. Paul proclaimed himself a Pharisee, and he claims to have persecuted the followers of Jesus; I suppose this may have helped conflate the two. Due to Paul’s association with both groups, perhaps, in later times and to later minds, the two groups became one.

This has some fairly profound historical information.  The fact that by Mark’s time, and more so by Matthew’s, the two groups had sort of merged together indicates that the authors of the gospels really didn’t understand the dynamics in Judea at the time of Jesus. Rather, they are looking back from a later time, or are looking at another land, or both. IOW, these are not people writing in Judea at any point before the Jewish War. There are a lot of people who want to date Mark in the 60s, but things like this, to me, are strong evidence otherwise. The theme of the Pharisees entering into a plot to kill Jesus is present already in Mark; while Matthew makes the connection and the case stronger, he’s not the one who made the original association. Mark got it wrong to begin with; this is strong evidence that Mark was separated by both space and time from the events he described. The time aspect is important for dating Mark; he did not understand how things worked in Judea because that set of circumstances no longer existed. They had been destroyed by the Jewish Revolt, and Mark wrote after the fact.

Why does this matter? Because it has something to say about the writing of the gospels overall. The later that Mark wrote, the less likely it becomes that he was not aware of Q. Really, if Q was written in the 50s, then something like two decades separate Q and Mark. This is a long time, and each year allows the broader dissemination of Q. If they were written close together in different places, then it’s easier to understand how Mark and Q ran in parallel paths that hadn’t intersected. But twenty years is plenty of time for the two to intersect. Think about it: Matthew was aware of Mark, and the time separating them could have been less than twenty years. Now, conditions were very different in Matthew’s time, and these conditions could easily explain a more rapid dissemination of Mark; but the simpler explanation is that Q did not exist.

Now, Matthew likely did have access to other traditions, and I have to explain why Q was not one of these, but that’s for another time and place. For now, we need to get back to Chapter 12.

As stated, there were four episodes: the plucking of grain, the healing of the withered hand, the exorcism, and the request for a sign. I would snuggest that these are arranged in order of increasing seriousness. Plucking the grain had the precedent of David, and Jesus himself points out that David invaded the House of God itself, which was a much graver offense than he and his disciples had committed. The story is from Mark, and it allows the comparison of Jesus and David, and this is key to the association of Jesus as Messiah. It works on the principle of the transitive theory. That last sentence is a great example of how words become too limited and specific in meaning to be particularly useful. For us in the English tradition, the words “messiah” and “anointed” are not synonyms. Well, they are in Hebrew and in Greek. David = Messiah = Jesus because David was God’s anointed, and Matthew is claiming that Jesus was, too. But the point of the story, the moral, as it were, set out in the last sentence is that Jesus is the lord of the Sabbath. I’m a bit surprised that this didn’t provoke more of a response from the Pharisees. I would think that the title “Lord of the Sabbath” would be near-blasphemy, if it didn’t cross the line. In the comment to the chapter, I gave reasons why I didn’t think this story was in any way factual, that Jesus and the Pharisees didn’t confront each other like they are purported to do. Here’s another one: the lack of outrage at the usurpation of God’s place as the Lord of the Sabbath.

The next two episodes have Jesus doing even more.  First, he heals a man with a withered hand, “knowing” that the onlookers are made very uncomfortable by the action. Matthew’s version adds to that of Mark, for Jesus directly challenges them about pulling a sheep from a pit. He forces them to acknowledge that what he is about to do is both just and appropriate for the Sabbath. This is the fifth time that we’ve come across a reference to sheep in Matthew; I had to go back and count because I hadn’t really remembered any. The idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is so firmly entrenched in Christian myth that we tend to forget the analogy only appears in Luke–two or even three generations after Jesus. Here, and in the other references so far, the sheep are a useful metaphor, an idea easily grasped. We have not yet had Jesus as the shepherd, except when alluding to the milling crowd as sheep without a shepherd (9:36). Anyway, the point is that Jesus has put the Pharisees in a very uncomfortable spot, and he has shown them up for the short-sighted legalists that they supposedly are. Ask yourself: is this the sort of thing that a man raised as a Jew would do? Yes, Matthew converted, and may have the zeal of a convert, but this seems more like the sort of showing-up that a pagan would conceive. And it doesn’t really square with Matthew’s proclamation that not an iota would be removed from the Law.

After this we get an exorcism. This leads to Jesus being accused of being in league with the devil. Well, with Beelzeboul, whom we usually equate with the devil. This comes after the crowd has begun to wonder if Jesus is the son of David–and therefore the anointed–after all. This is a neat tie-back to, and reinforcement of, the first episode when Jesus compared his actions to those of David. So, yes, the confirmation is there, if a bit roundabout. But this is mostly in Mark. It’s what comes next that really counts. For Jesus uses Mark’s “house divided” speech to bring in the story of the demon who returns to its former host, this time bringing seven demons along for the ride. For this is where we get to the real heart of the message of this chapter.

I admittedly did not particularly understand the symbolism of this story at first. I found Calvin’s explanation interesting, and reasonable. The crux of the story is that Matthew is using this as a way of explaining why the Jews had not all become followers of Jesus. Why was there such an appeal to pagans, but Jews had fallen by the wayside? I realize that I may not be expounding the majority opinion on this matter, that a lot of people may believe that Jews still comprised a substantial percentage of the followers of Jesus, but that is not what Mark and Matthew have been saying. Their message, IMO, is plainly–to me, anyway–that the Jews had been superseded by pagans. They were not joining the ranks of Jesus’ followers in significant numbers by the time Mark wrote, and they had become even more scarce by Matthew’s day. And both evangelists have taken pains to come up with an explanation. Mark had the whole theme of secrecy, that Jesus tried very hard to keep his identity under wraps, and there is the added layer of possibly a deeper doctrine that he shared with only his disciples, and in private. Of course, this is at odds with the huge crowds that followed Jesus, but maybe the parable of the sower was meant to explain this. The crowds were the seed that fell in shallow soil, springing up quickly, but then withering for lack of roots. Matthew doesn’t have a consistent story like Mark, but I have pointed out time and again that Matthew is telling us that Jews are no longer the primary point of origin for those who joined Jesus followers. Matthew is definitely–IMO–writing for pagans.

And this point is driven home at the end of the chapter. The irony that Matthew gives us is wonderful. Here, Jesus has proclaimed himself Lord of the Sabbath, has healed a withered hand, and has driven out a demon. And what happens next? Another group of Pharisees comes and asks for a sign. Wow. How dense are these people? My strong suspicion is that Matthew intended his audience to ask themselves this question. The answer? Really dense. Because Jesus then tells them that they will get no sign, except for that of Jonah. Pharisees asked for a sign in Mark, too, but the sign of Jonah only appears in Matthew. What does it mean? Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights, so would Jesus be in the belly of the earth for three days and three nights (if the math doesn’t add up exactly, keep in mind that this is metaphorical, or religious imagery). Of course, the even bigger irony is that by the time Matthew wrote, the Jews had received their sign. Jesus had been in the grave for three days (or parts thereof), and the Jews still didn’t believe in his divinity. They had been given three signs, and the sign of Jonah on top of that, and the message continued to evade them. Both Mark and Matthew have Jesus referring–disparagingly–to this wicked and sinful generation. The message is two-fold here: the generation in question was both the generation that had killed Jesus, and the generation contemporary with either evangelist that still refused to accept the good news of the kingdom.

That, I believe, is the real meaning of this chapter. It’s the coup de grâce to explain that this new religion of Christianity had broken free of its Jewish roots. And so the chapter concludes with Jesus telling us who is mother and brother and sisters are: those who do the will of God. Now of course these family members are allegorical, for they refer also to Jesus’ greater family of the Jewish nation. They did not do the will of God, so their place has been taken by the pagans.


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 17, 2015, in Chapter 12, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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