Summary Matthew Chapter 13

Ostensibly the them of Chapter 13 should be the parables; the chapter contains a large collection of them, and most of the chapter is almost entirely given over to parables. There is a familiar one, that of the Sower, but most of the ones we find here are unique to Matthew. And here is where we get to the actual them of Chapter 13: that of the provenance of these different parables, and what this collection tells us about Matthew, the early church, the sources for Jesus that Matthew encountered, and perhaps whether we can infer if any of these are actually Matthew’s creations.

One possibility is that some of these parables actually postdate Matthew. That is, they were written later and inserted into the work by someone else. This would provide a ready explanation for why Luke did not repeat many of these: this is because they were inserted into Matthew after Luke wrote. This is a pretty radical thesis. I have never seen it suggested anywhere, and it may be incredibly presumptuous of me even to propose the possibility. However, in the parable of the net, we have some unusual–or even unique–words that are rarely if ever used in the rest of the gospel. A set-piece with an odd vocabulary could easily be indicative of an author different from Matthew. I will not presume to judge on syntax and grammar; no doubt others might be able to do so, whether for or against, but I don’t feel competent to address this. I am not that well versed in Greek in general, and the NT in particular. I can say that Herodotus and Thucydides and Plato and Xenophon had very different writing styles, and it would not be difficult to spot the insertion of something by one writer into the work of another. So far, aside from some aspects of Paul, I have not noted raging differences between the way Mark and Matthew write. Sure, there are dissimilarities, but, by-and-large, they are remarkably homogenous. So I can’t argue that the grammar of the parable of the net is noticeably different from the grammar of the surrounding context.

This suggestion is pure speculation on my part. While my argument may not be convincing, I do believe that it raises some interesting points, and that it deserves a formal refutation. That could be an interesting exercise. Perhaps one of those who find the organization of the Sermon on the Mount to be so masterful could work up an argument to refute this suggestion of mine. I’d like to see it.

Another supporting feature for the insertion of parables at a later time is a difference in attitude, or outlook, or theology. In such situations, the ideas expressed, or the implications of these ideas are different from what is found in the work as a whole. The parables of the Wheat and Tares and that of The Net, IMO, may fall into this category. While the idea of a fiery end to sinners, as expressed in Mark’s Gehenna, probably pre-dates Jesus, and the idea of angels-as-harvesters may not be entirely unique to this parable, what stands out is the fact that there is a description of what will happen at the end time. Note that the other parables included here are simply provide a metaphor of the kingdom; in particular, the other parables provide a metaphor of how the kingdom will grow. The growth is seen as organic, as something occurring without intervention, a natural process like the growth of seed. But in none of these other parables do we have any sort of description of what is to happen at the end. Taken to their logical conclusion, some of these parables may be read as implying the inclusion of all in the final kingdom. The parable of the Mustard Seed could be read in this way.

The Wheat & Tares and Then Net break from this mould. Both of these describe an end when an active sorting of good and bad will occur. In the Wheat & Tares, the sorting will be done by angels; in The Net, the agent is unspecified. In both cases, the evil ones will be cast into the fire. Now the parable of the Sower leaves this sorting implied; only some of the seed will fall on good ground, while the rest will be wasted in the sense that the kingdom will not come to fruition for the seed cast on the road, or among the stones. But the implication is that of a natural process. Those of the good ground will sprout and thrive and produce fabulous returns. The others will not, but the implication is not so much that of a sorting by agents as a process that occurs of itself. More, the implication is that this seed that fell on bad soil will simply die away. Granted, it may be reading too much into this to interpret the different outcomes as meaning that the good will enter Life, and the bad will simply die. For that matter, the good seed will die, too, for only in that way will the spectacular results be realized. The Wheat & Tares and The Net have very different implications.

Thus the question becomes whether these implications are so different because they are the work of another hand? The answer, it seems, should be “yes”, but with qualifications. In these two examples, we have what appears to be a development of the idea behind the kingdom. The idea has acquired additional ramifications and so has become more complex. This is in accord with how thought and theology work. The Trinity is not biblical; the implications may be, but the idea of the Trinity as understood by many modern Christians is not. That is, the idea of the Trinity developed. And we have something similar here. Jesus probably talked about the kingdom, but in ways like the Sower or the Mustard Seed talk about the kingdom. Of the parables presented here, those two are those most likely to trace back to Jesus. But in the fifty years after Jesus’ death, people would naturally want further explication of what the kingdom was, what it wasn’t, how it was attained, and what that attainment meant. To meet these questions, the leaders of the various communities–acting largely independently of each other for several decades–formulated answers, which were put into Jesus’ mouth. Hence the unique parables here. These parables were still suitably vague, but less so than the Sower or the Mustard Seed. In this way the leadership subsequent to Jesus answered the questions of their community by giving out more information than Jesus had done initially. This is how the beliefs of the nascent religion grew–or developed.

But is any of this enough to demonstrate that there were different authors at work? If these other parables are not to be attributed to Jesus, then the answer is affirmative, pretty much by definition. I would suggest that the parables fall into three groups. The first includes the Sower and the Mustard Seed; these are the oldest, potentially tracing to Jesus himself. The second would include the Treasure and the Pearl. These two really don’t provide much more information than the first two. In addition, the level of simplicity would indicate these came from a different mind. These were added after the first two. The final group, the latest group, include the Wheat  & Tares and The Net. They form the last layer of addition, including more information–and they agree on the sorting & fire. These are major thematic agreements.

Can any of these be attributed to Matthew? Of course. Is there any evidence that Matthew composed any of these? Absolutely not. Offhand, were I to guess, I would credit the last group to Matthew, based solely on their recent provenance. It depends on how we view Matthew. Was he a teacher, the leader of a community? Or was he retiring by nature, content to work alone at his manuscript, recording what the teachers and the leaders said? Given the nature of writing–an essentially solitary occupation, I would guess the latter role for Matthew. Some of this is based on my own experience, and my own experience of the world. The teachers, the leaders are, usually, not the retiring sort. They want to be in the midst of it all; indeed, they want to be leading–and so controlling–the hurley-burley around them.  But that is just an inference at best, a guess at worst.

Once we get past the actual parables, another theme emerges: that of knowledge. There is a quote from Psalms, proclaiming the intention to preach in parables to disclose all the secrets kept from the foundation of the earth. We also have Jesus explaining the parable of the Sower, just as he did in Mark. The difference in this version is that the disciples explicitly confirm their understanding of the meaning. Matthew puts the words of affirmation into their mouth. This is a change from the dullards we encountered in Mark. Which set of disciples is closer to the truth? Most likely Mark’s bunch. If you recall the distinctions between James and Paul, the latter was more fixed on the idea of Jesus-as-Christ than James was. (We’ll discuss this again later in this summary.) Or perhaps the set of disciples in Matthew has become paganised to some extent. This distinction is based on the idea that pagans were more comfortable with the idea of a divine, or at least semi-divine son of a god walking the earth like another human being. Jesus had a later contemporary son of god perambulating the Eastern Mediterranean in the person of Apollonius of Tyana. For Jews, OTOH, this was something of a foreign concept. Was Mark casting the disciples as dullards in order to explain why they hadn’t grasped Jesus’ divinity as quickly as later followers of Jesus thought they should? Think about it: to later followers looking back, it would have seemed to be the height of folly to walk with Jesus and not recognize his divinity. And there is plenty of evidence in Mark that Jesus’ divinity was not universally recognized. How else to explain these scales on their eyes? In short, Mark combined the disciples’ collective lack of awareness with the idea of the Messianic secret to explain the paucity of followers from the ranks of the Jews.

In turn, that Mark felt it necessary to do this would support the contention that the tipping point, the point at which more followers were former pagans than former Jews, likely came much earlier than is usually thought. Mark wrote in the days after the Jewish Revolt. This had obviously not been an action of Jesus followers, but of those Jews who supported national, or at least religious autonomy from Rome. This is the milieu, and the end result that has led to many “Jesus as Zealot” theories. One of the latest is Reza Aslan’s Zealot, in which he argues this very position. One of the attractions of this thesis is that it provides a handy excuse for Jesus’ arrest and execution by the Romans. There is even the argument that crucifixion as mode of execution was largely reserved for sedition. Of course, this position assumes that Rome felt it needed an excuse to execute anyone. This is simply not the case, and is particularly not the case when it came to subject peoples. Spitting on the sidewalk could be seen as justification enough if one happened to be spotted by a Roman soldier having a bad day. And it ignores the testimony of the gospels themselves, in which Jesus was crucified with two thieves, while the rebel Barabbas was set free. Aslan argued that the word used for “thief” was, in Greek, used by the Romans to mean something more like “bandit” or “brigand”, with the nuance of lawlessness that led to revolution. Even a summary glance at the use of the word–and its Latin translation–undercut this argument significantly. The term was generic, as was the method of execution. Crucifixion is brutal; this is the message Rome liked to get across to subject peoples.

So this was the background for Mark. He had a dual purpose: to explain why the Jews hadn’t followed Jesus in larger numbers than they had, and to exculpate the Romans from blame. Fixing the guilt on Jesus’ death on the religious authorities in Jerusalem helped both these tasks simultaneously.

Then we come to Matthew. In this chapter we begin the rehabilitation of the disciples. Here, they understand. They get it. This is the first step towards the later church’s sanctification of the disciples, a process that turned them into the founders of the church and, eventually, saints. If we need evidence to support Mark writing first, this is a good piece. In creating legends, time tends to elevate those integral to the legend, rather than to tear them down. There is the opposite of the process we see here: Mark cast them as dullard, Matthew raised them up. Acts will portray them as wonder-workers who perform miracles. That is how elevation works, and how humans are raised above their humanity, moving into the realm of the divine. Or at least, the legendary, like Roland or Arthur.

For what it’s worth, I’ve begun to have my suspicions that neither Peter nor Paul went to Rome. But that’s for discussion at a later date. I mention it because it’s another good example of how elevation comes to work, especially when it serves the purposes and propaganda of a later corporate body. Like the Bishop of Rome.

The final bit that we find here is the tale of Jesus coming to the home of his fathers. It is unnamed, both here and in Mark. Why? This is the sort of detail that should make any historian sit up and prick up his/her ears. Such a simple thing. And no later copyist saw fit to insert the name of the town. In Mark 3, when Jesus’ family comes to rescue him, we discussed the logistical problems with this. Mark told us that Jesus “set his home down” in Caphernaum. Caphernaum is some distance from Nazareth; I’m not fully confident of the map reconstructions, but they all put the distance at around ten miles between them. It is simply physically impossible for word to travel to Nazareth that Jesus was in trouble, and then for the family to come to Caphernaum to effect the “rescue”. That’s twenty foot-miles. That’s six or seven hours of walking, assuming an average walking speed of three mph. And remember, one of those traveling from Nazareth was Jesus’ mother, who was no longer a young woman at that point. To obviate this, we have to suppose that all of Jesus’ family, including his sisters who are “here among us” moved to Caphernaum as well. Again, aside from the difficulty of the logistics–women married into the family of their husband–we are not told this by the text. We are told that Jesus set down his house, but not that he moved his entire family.

Then there’s the bit about Nazareth. Mark told us that Jesus, came from Nazareth in Galilee to see the Baptist. That is the only time Nazareth is mentioned by Mark. And this is exactly the sort of thing we might expect to be added as an interpolation. To be fair, there are no manuscript traditions that leave out these words, but that’s the sort of thing that could get into the text very early. See the example of the inset into Isaiah. The Dead Sea Scrolls had a manuscript with the verbiage missing, and texts that included the paragraphs. Yes, I know, it’s very convenient to eliminate uncomfortable text by writing it off as an interpolation. But the internal evidence of the “land of his fathers” story is consistent with the lack of Nazareth from Mark’s text. If we eliminate the one occurrence, then Mark consistently does not name Jesus’ birthplace. Then we come to the word “land of the fathers”. This is a anglicized translation of the Greek “patris”. This word is essentially the genitive case for “father”, so the base meaning is “of the father”, and so it could mean any sort of ancestral heritage; but it did come to mean “home of the father”, hence hometown. The important aspect is that this is a very rare word in the NT. It gets used twice here; more significantly, it is also used twice–and only twice–in Mark. And both of those usages are in Mark’s version of this story.

The ramifications of this are large. The most plausible explanation is that this word was imported into Mark as part of this story. It was the word used by Mark’s source. This is an inference drawn from the fact that the word is not used elsewhere. Of course, it’s possible that it wasn’t used elsewhere because it wasn’t germane to the context; Mark never talked about home town elsewhere so the word wasn’t appropriate. But it’s hard not to see the word as embedded in the story as Mark found it. One implication of this is that the source was likely written; to carry an unusual word like that probably meant that Mark saw it printed, rather than heard it as told by someone. There is, of course, no way to prove this either way, save by turning up a copy of the original in some other context. Despite this imperviousness to proof, my sense is that the odd word tips the scales decidedly in favor of a pre-existent word carried by a written source.

There is an additional ramification. If this story came down to Mark, it was necessarily an older source, something that pre-dated Mark. Given this, the lack of a name for the home town takes on an additional weight of significance. The lack of a name implies that the tradition had not yet determined that Jesus was to be from Nazareth. He came from somewhere, but, at that time, no one was particularly concerned with where that might have been. Plus, it implies that the location of Jesus being from Nazareth found in Mark is, indeed, an interpolation, that it was not part of the original text as written by Mark. Thus, the first indication we actually have that Jesus is from Nazareth comes from Matthew; and given Matthew’s penchant to create a story to fit a prophecy from the HS, then his testimony is not very reliable. This does not prove that Jesus was from Caphernaum, but absent the tradition of Nazareth, it is a best inference. There is the statement of Mark that Jesus settled there, which indicates that he did come from somewhere else. This cannot be simply waved off; some explanation for it must be presented. The problem is that any explanation is pure conjecture, meaning one is as good as another–unless there is a clue that I’ve missed. I think that Mark came across a set of stories that took place in Caphernaum; without knowing Jesus’ actual point of origin, he had Jesus settle there and moved on. He tells us that Jesus had a house there, and that could be said to carry more weight than the throw-away line that Jesus settled there. Or maybe Mark felt compelled to add this line to explain the story presented here, about Jesus visiting his home town.

And recall one point made in the comment. Jesus refers to himself as “prophet”. This will support the argument that this story is old by the time it got to Mark. The use of “prophet” refers to a human, a figure well ensconced in Jewish tradition. As such, this is another indication of the age of the story. The reference to Jesus as a purely human, very Jewish cultural ikon tells us that this came from a tradition that saw Jesus as both human and Jewish. That is, this tradition did not see Jesus as divine, or as the Christ, or as anything else–except possibly a wonder-worker, but that role for a prophet has ample precedence in the HS. However, for Matthew, this description was no longer accurate. By the time we reach Matthew, Jesus has become not only The Christ, but of divine birth and origin, something that he was not for Paul, or the earlier part of Mark. In other words, what we have here are several factors coming together, all of them consistent with a story that pre-dated Mark: the odd word (patris), lack of a name for the hometown, and Jesus as a human figure. While this proves nothing, it’s about as good as one gets for creating historical arguments for events in the First Century CE. Yes, there are problems with this, but these problems are outweighed by the evidence that this was an old story. So it seems safe to say that Jesus was not said to be from Nazareth until Matthew.

All of that is a fairly solid reconstruction of history. What will follow is borderline flight of fancy. What if there is more to this story than meets the eye? One aspect of this story that we have not discussed are Jesus’ siblings: the brothers who are named, and the sisters who are not. The list here is not the same as that given in Mark; that has been mentioned. In both cases, though, the name that looms large is James. Of course, the question is whether this provides independent verification for Paul, who says that James, the brother of the Lord was the leader of the Jerusalem community. I believe it does. Furthermore, I believe that the mention of James by Josephus to be real. I don’t necessarily believe all the details in Josephus, but given that it would have become increasingly embarrassing for Jesus to be understood to have flesh-and-blood siblings, there’s not much reason to suppose that some later Christian scribe inserted the passage about James as a whole. The passage may have been expanded by later Christian copyists, as the passage on Jesus certainly was expanded by later Christians, but I don’t believe it was inserted in toto. As such, it’s fascinating to note that the existence of James is perhaps more firmly attested than that of his more famous and (presumably) older brother.

So far, nothing spectacular. But here is where this really takes off in flight. What if the “home town” was actually a metaphor for James? What if this story was a reference to James’ reluctance to accept his brother as the Messiah, let alone as someone divine? It should not be difficult to imagine James feeling this way. Think for a moment: we are all familiar with the prophet being without honour in his home town. But we forget the prophet is also without honour in his own house. Or perhaps this is a reference to the house where they all grew up, which after Jesus relocated to Caphernaum, or after he died, passed to James as the next oldest?

There are many potential implications to this theory. It does not sit entirely well with the idea that this story demonstrates that Jesus was not from Nazareth, although there is no explicit and direct contradiction, or even conflict. The problem arises from the differing intentions; or are they necessarily different? Much depends on how we perceive James and his teaching. One possibility suggested in the reading of Mark is that the wonder-worker stories was the tradition of James. The wonder-worker/prophet is firmly within Jewish tradition; Ehrman makes constant reference to Honi the Circle-Drawer; beyond that, several OT prophets performed wonders, even to the point of raising people from the dead. As such a figure, Jesus would not have been outside mainstream Judaism, whatever that means. Of course, here Jesus complains that a prophet is without honour, which conflicts with the idea that James saw Jesus as a prophet, a very human prophet. However, this may be quibbling over semantics. Also, Paul gives no indication of such a distinction between what he taught and what James taught, and this is also a problem for this particular thesis. But these problems only arise if we take the story completely literally, instead of as an allegory about the differences of opinion regarding Jesus’ role, identity, and heritage.

This thesis deserves more consideration. Unfortunately, it seems like one of those ideas that will never be able to be proved, or disproved. The NT is made up of many working parts, many pieces from many different sources. Because of this situation, half-baked ideas like this last one serve a very useful function: they help point out just how many joints and seams there are in these gospels. The solitary name at the beginning of each is terribly misleading, especially for Mark and Matthew. Prior to examination, it’s hard to assess Luke, Acts, and John, but the sense is that Luke and John are much more the work of a unitary author, with some editorial input, perhaps, added at a later date. “Mark” and “Matthew”, OTOH, are complete misnomers, causing many more problems than each name solves. So wild speculation like we’ve engaged in here is a necessary corrective, one that is all-too-sadly missing from most of the literature. More’s the pity.


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 25, 2015, in Chapter 13, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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