Matthew Chapter 13:24-30

We get another parable. This one is unique to Matthew.

24 Ἄλλην παραβολὴν παρέθηκεν αὐτοῖς λέγων, Ὡμοιώθη ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ σπείραντι καλὸν σπέρμα ἐν τῷ ἀγρῷ αὐτοῦ.

25 ἐν δὲ τῷ καθεύδειν τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἦλθεν αὐτοῦ ὁ ἐχθρὸς καὶ ἐπέσπειρεν ζιζάνια ἀνὰ μέσον τοῦ σίτου καὶ ἀπῆλθεν.

Another parable he told them, saying, “The kingdom of the heavens is compared to a man planting good seed in his field. (25) In the time of men sleeping came an enemy of his and he (the enemy) planted weeds (probably darnel) in the midst of the grain and left.

First of all this is the only use of “zizania” in Liddell & Scott. The definition is largely an inference from the context. Apparently, the root is related to the Sumerian word for “wheat”.

Secondly, does this whole scenario strike you as a bit…contrived? The parable of the sower had a real organic feel to it, like something someone actually said. This, OTOH, feels very forced. Is this why Luke chose to ignore the story, and not carry it into his own gospel?

More, since this story only occurs in Matthew, is it reasonable to conclude that it may be attributed to Matthew alone? There is no need for this to be the product of an earlier source, and it’s certainly not in Q, so why not Matthew. One of the hypotheses that I set out with when I started Matthew was that he was the author of a lot of the new material, the stuff that’s not in Mark. It still seems incredible to believe that he didn’t make up at least some of the new material. This, of course, entails that some of the new material that was supposedly in Q was invented by Matthew. I still believe this, but it’s been harder to sort out than I imagined. So as of this writing I have an opinion that I can’t truly elevate into an hypothesis because I don’t have any real evidence to support or refute the opinion.

But I will go out on a limb and hazard that this story is a creation of Matthew. Why? Quite simply because it’s too clumsy to be compelling. Had this come from a previous source, Matthew the editorial genius would have chosen not to include it. That’s still just an opinion, or perhaps a judgement; whichever tern you choose, it’s wholly lacking in supporting evidence. 

24 Aliam parabolam proposuit illis dicens: “ Simile factum est regnum caelorum homini, qui seminavit bonum semen in agro suo.

25 Cum autem dormirent homines, venit inimicus eius et superseminavit zizania in medio tritici et abiit.

26 ὅτε δὲ ἐβλάστησεν ὁ χόρτος καὶ καρπὸν ἐποίησεν, τότε ἐφάνη καὶ τὰ ζιζάνια.

When the fodder grew and made the fruit, then the zizania appeared.  

<<καρπὸν>> means “fruit” in the generic sense; with wheat it refers to the heads, the actual kernels of wheat that are used for human food. <<χόρτος>> OTOH, literally, or at its root, means a “farmyard”, or any place where animals are fed. I translated it here as “fodder” because I have the sense that the stalks, the part without the fruit, would have been fed to the animals as fodder. I kinda sorta come from a farming community, and I have the feeling that this is wrong, but it may only be wrong in the 20th/21st Centuries. Back in the olden days, times were hard enough that one didn’t waste anything if one could help it. It was said that when a pig was slaughtered, the only thing that didn’t get uses was the squeal. Just so, I suspect that the stalks of wheat may have been fed to the animals.

And this is a great example of how historical information is conveyed in a very incidental manner. Matthew had no intention of describing farming or animal husbandry techniques, but his choice of vocabulary conveyed that meaning. Not that it’s terribly significant information, especially for our purposes, but it’s information nonetheless. Also, it’s a great example of how words evolve.

26 Cum autem crevisset herba et fructum fecisset, tunc apparuerunt et zizania.

27 προσελθόντες δὲ οἱ δοῦλοι τοῦ οἰκοδεσπότου εἶπον αὐτῷ, Κύριε, οὐχὶ καλὸν σπέρμα ἔσπειρας ἐν τῷ σῷ ἀγρῷ; πόθεν οὖν ἔχει ζιζάνια;

Coming forward, the slaves to the master of the house asked him, “Lord, did you not plant good seed in the field? How then does it have zizania?”

The term <<οἰκοδεσπότης>> can mean a couple of different things. Literally, it’s the “despot of the house”, Of course, “despot” doesn’t have the entirely negative connotations that we now attach to the word. As such, it can mean the master, as in the owner, it can also be used of the steward, or major domo. Since he’s addressed as “lord”, I’m going to guess the former. Again, not that it matters really, but just to point this out. There have been times–especially in some of the more difficult passages of Paul–where the exact shading can have implications, but mostly, a shade here, a nuance there, it doesn’t matter a lot. At least, not as much as is sometimes implied. I do prefer, or have come to prefer, the original, but that’s really a preference. Sort of like my opinion on the provenance of this story. It’s what I feel, whether or not there’s really good reason to do so or not.

27 Accedentes autem servi patris familias dixerunt ei: “Domine, nonne bonum semen seminasti in agro tuo? Unde ergo habet zizania?.

28 ὁ δὲ ἔφη αὐτοῖς, Ἐχθρὸς ἄνθρωπος τοῦτο ἐποίησεν. οἱ δὲ δοῦλοι λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Θέλεις οὖν ἀπελθόντες συλλέξωμεν αὐτά;

And he said to them, “An enemy fellow did this.” The slaves said to him, “Do you wish us going out to gather them?” 

Here, I think, is the purpose behind the addition of the story. “An enemy”. Of course, we as denizens of the current age are well familiar with the idea of the devil, the enemy. But in this story the devil has been given a level of significance that goes beyond what he is given elsewhere in the NT; or more than he has been given to this point in the NT. The devil here has responsibility; he has agency; he is an actor in his own right thereby going well beyond the boundaries of his role as the tempter that we saw in Chapter 3. Whatever else we can say about this passage, I believe it represents a very significant step in the development of the concept* of the devil, and moves him/it closer to the central role he was to play in Christian theology–and theodicy. The devil is a very complex construction, and this agency aspect, ultimately, traces back to Zoroastrianism. There, the principal of evil, Ahriman, is (at least sometimes, in some ways, in some schools of thought) given agency like this. He is independent of Ahuramazda, the principal of light, in a way, and to a degree that Satan only attains very rarely.

Christian theology walks–or tries to walk–a very fine line. Few Christians will grant that God is the cause of evil; he permits it, it’s part of The Plan, but God is not the one causing it. That is the Devil. The problem is that God created the Devil; as such, the former is completely responsible for anything and everything the latter does. Zoroastrianism obviates this by positing the existence of two principals, independent of each other. In this way evil cannot be traced back to the good god. The idea was that the two principals were squared off in an all-or-nothing struggle to determine if the universe would be all good, or all evil, all the time. Of course, there was a bit of hedging even here: it was usually assumed in a nudge-nudge-wink-wink sort of way that good would, in the end, prevail. The problem with this, though, is that it then prompts (but does not beg) the question of “why be good if good is destined to triumph?” Most religions, most schools of thought will, generally, only follow their logic to a certain point. Usually, they will blanche and turn back from the absolute logical conclusion. This was what the Scholastic thinkers at the end of the Middle Ages were famous–notorious–for: actually following the chain of logic to the end. The Humanist, like Erasmus, only took their thought to a certain point and then drifted off in a fuzzy haze. This, of course, is exactly what John Calvin did not do: he followed the argument of Predestination to the end, concluding that God did, indeed, create people that had no chance to get to heaven. They were reprobate, damned from the moment of conception. No, from the foundation of the universe. That is a very ferocious theology.

Given this, we wonder if this is part of the reason Luke demurred from including this story? He didn’t like the independence it gave to the devil? Of course, this is a non-issue if you accept Matthew/Luke independence. But I don’t, so I have to think of stuff like this.

*h/t to Jeffrey Burton Russell’s magisterial series on the devil. There he identified the concept of the concept: the combination of theology, theodicy, cultural impact, and major player in our thought world. He came to my attention as the author of a book on Mediaeval witchcraft that I stumbled upon in a remainders sale. Sometimes you get lucky.

28 Et ait illis: “Inimicus homo hoc fecit”. Servi autem dicunt ei: “Vis, imus et colligimus ea?”.

29 ὁ δέ φησιν, Οὔ, μήποτε συλλέγοντες τὰ ζιζάνια ἐκριζώσητε ἅμα αὐτοῖς τὸν σῖτον.

30 ἄφετε συναυξάνεσθαι ἀμφότερα ἕως τοῦ θερισμοῦ: καὶ ἐν καιρῷ τοῦ θερισμοῦ ἐρῶ τοῖς θερισταῖς, Συλλέξατε πρῶτον τὰ ζιζάνια καὶ δήσατε αὐτὰ εἰς δέσμας πρὸς τὸ κατακαῦσαι αὐτά, τὸν δὲ σῖτον συναγάγετε εἰς τὴν ἀποθήκην μου.

He said to them, “No. You cannot, collecting together the zizania judge between them and the grain. (30) “Leave them both to grow until the harvest. In the season of harvest I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather first the zizania and bind it into bundles for the burning of it, but the grain gather together into my place where things are put’ (i.e., a barn)”

This is also some fairly sophisticated theology. This is the Christian eschatology in a nutshell: good and evil co-exist until the harvest, the end of days.  The thing to note about this concept, I think, is that it’s different from the eschatology we’ve come across up to this point. This is not, at least not exactly, the screaming day of judgement we’ve been warned about–and promised–since the latter Hebrew prophets. I’m not saying judgement won’t occur, but it lacks the savour of vengeance that has been an integral part of the End Times in previous discussions of the End Times. Here it feels like a more natural process, like the growing of the plants until the harvest comes in due season.

Here’s a thought. Think back to 1 Thessalonians 4, with the Lord coming down from the sky and the faithful rising up to meet him in the clouds. There is no talk of a fiery time, a time of great turmoil and tribulation, with brother against brother as Mark “predicted” in Chapter 13. This passage here seems more like Paul’s piece than it does Mark’s eschatology. Of course you may disagree, but let’s assume it’s so for a moment. What this tells us, from the historical viewpoint, by reading this as a record of the belief of the nascent Christian community at the particular time when it was written, is that, perhaps, the fire and brimstone and horrific time of tribulation has sort of faded into the background. Why? Because the horrors of the Jewish War were at least a generation from the experience of the author and his audience. All that treachery and death and destruction had become simply stories; terrible ones, but stories nonetheless. In the same way that WWII had become only stories or movies or TV shows (Hogan’s Heroes, anyone?) for kids in the 60s. As such, and now that the Empire had settled back into a peaceful existence–as defined by that period–the idea of wars and rumours of wars maybe started to seem like distant thunder: it was there, sure, but it was too far away to pose any real danger, or cause any real concern.

Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians at a similar period of quiescence. The turmoil of Gaius Caligula had faded, the turmoil of Nero or the Jewish War hadn’t appeared. So there was no reason for him to expect the tribulations that the next generation would experience. When things were running smoothly, the Romans weren’t the worst overlords; all they ultimately wanted was cooperation and taxes. Go along, and you got trade and commerce and a pretty decent standard of living for ancient times, and you didn’t have to live in perpetual fear of the next village, or the next tribe, or the next kingdom showing up unannounced with swords drawn. You got a fairly stable, peaceful life–by ancient standards. Really, the standard of living and the level of security in the first centuries CE were probably not matched again across so wide a spectrum in the cultural West until the 19th Century. So for Paul, and for Matthew, the End Times might just be one of those things that happen, unexpectedly, one day. There was no reason to thirst for revenge against the oppressor, nor to fear the tribulation. And, going one step further, this may explain why the devil’s role has been expanded: the usual earthly suspects were not acting very suspiciously, so a new agent had to be introduced that would spoil things and cause trouble.

So, as it turns out, this is a very significant little anecdote.

And just to underline, this is speculation to some degree. Although I would call this more a case of historical judgement. (But then I would, wouldn’t I?) But we have a new element and a discontinuity of thought. These should be–but never are–explained in non-theological terms. I think what I’m suggesting is plausible, based on internal evidence and external context. It becomes incumbent on me to explain why Luke didn’t include the story. Was he writing during the persecutions that supposedly happened under Domitian, giving him a less rosy outlook. Perhaps. We shall see when we get to Luke.

29 Et ait: “Non; ne forte colligentes zizania eradicetis simul cum eis triticum,

30 sinite utraque crescere usque ad messem. Et in tempore messis dicam messoribus: Colligite primum zizania et alligate ea in fasciculos ad comburendum ea, triticum autem congregate in horreum meum” ”.

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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 July 3, 2015, in Chapter 13, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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