Summary Matthew Chapter 14

Having reviewed the commentary on this chapter, one theme proved consistent. This was the additions vs. the subtractions of Mark’s material made by Matthew. There were three major stories here; or, two, with the second divided into two parts. These are 1) the death of the Baptist; 2) the feeding of the 5,000; 3) Jesus walking on the water. The last two are, at least sometimes, considered to be a unit in the sense that the third is always attached to the end of the second. This is a significant theme because it gets to the heart of a triad of relevant issues. 1) Did Matthew use Mark, in the sense of having a copy of Mark in front of him?; 2) how did Matthew abridge or lengthen the story?; 3) what do the additions/subtractions tell us about the development of the story of Jesus? A corollary to these would be the issue of sources. Can the changes Matthew made tell us anything about potential sources?

The first question is still a question may itself be a question. There is, for example, the Griesbach hypothesis which that Matthew wrote first, and that Mark sort of wrote an abridgment of Matthew. This overlaps largely, but is not syonymous with, the Two-Gospel Theory. I do not know how seriously this is actually taken any more, at least by scholars; however, a cursory Google search showed that this belief is not uncommon, especially among ministries of various sorts. Their reasoning is very similar to that of the not-so-early Church Fathers who put Matthew first. Assuming Mark’s priority means that it is possible to argue that many of the additions to Mark made by Matthew may be “later embellishments” (as per Wikipedia). And, in fact, I have argued, and will continue to argue exactly that. As I see this, simply reading the two in succession is proof enough of Mark’s priority. This becomes even more clear if one reads through the lens of historical inquiry (that is actually redundant) and/or with an understanding of how legends are created. There is sufficient literature available on-line that one can pursue this at leisure.

The second question is really the heart of this entry. And, when we step back to look at the whole, the answer is actually quite clear. Matthew deletes what are, essentially, extraneous details. These would include the name of Salome, or the disciples straining against the oars. He adds pieces that further emphasize his point about who Jesus is, or that underscore Jesus’ power. An example of this would include the setting of Jesus in the lonely place, which stresses that there were no resources available to Jesus to assist in the feeding of this large group, that it was his power alone that managed this feat. Another would be the declaration of the disciples that Jesus is truly the son/Son of God. Taking this even further is the addition of Peter walking–or trying to–on the water. This aspect of the story is unique to Matthew. And really, despite the perplexity I expressed at the outset of my last post on the chapter about why Matthew dropped some details largely answered itself.

More, the answer to the third question was pretty much answered in the paragraph above. The changes that Matthew made were done to create a stronger picture of who Jesus was, and that Jesus was rather–or largely–different from the way presented in Mark. Jesus becomes more elevated, more–in a word–divine. He is less, much less, human than he was in Mark. Matthew’s Jesus does not get angry. He does not complain that he is surrounded by dullards who just don’t get It. And even the disciples themselves have changed in this last regard. When he asked if they understood the parables in Chapter 13, they did. This is reflected by the fact that we’re half-way through Matthew (based on number of chapters) and Jesus hasn’t become cross with them even once. The people, IOW, are less people and moving toward an ideal. Even Peter instinctively has faith: he jumped out of the boat, believing. That his faith faltered, well, that is human. But it falters in a way that does credit to Jesus, rather than discrediting him as the lack of faith in his hometown did in Mark 6. Actually, I just realized that Jesus has become cross, exactly once. It’s when he admonishes Peter as one of little faith. This term, or the idea behind the term, was used frequently by Mark to express Jesus’ exasperation. Since Jesus doesn’t get exasperated often, the term has not appeared frequently in Matthew.

This leaves the story of the death of the Baptist. As mentioned, Josephus corroborates that Herod had John executed to some degree because John spoke out about Herod marrying the widow of his brother. The rest, which mainly involves the dance 0f (s0me unnamed daughter of Herodias per Matthew’s account) is found only in the NT. I have read chunks of Josephus, but hardly the entire thing. I have noticed that Josephus is a bit…gossipy, at times. He has an affinity for lurid details; but then, even supposedly “sober” historians like Tacitus like to report salacious tales and details, all in the pursuit of telling it like it was, of course. My judgement is that, if Josephus had been aware of the story of Salome, he probably would have included it as too juicy to omit. But that is my judgement; it is based on little more than my overall knowledge of historical technique of the time. (And note that Tacitus was writing about 20 years after Josephus, according to the general consensus dating of both authors.)

So the lack of the dance of Salome indicates one of two things. Either Josephus knew of the story in Matthew and chose not to use it, or that Josephus did not know the NT story. The latter seems more likely. At the end of the First Century, there is reason to believe that the burgeoning collection of NT literature wasn’t all that familiar even to Christians, let alone outsiders. Then, by extension, the story of the dance of Salome, and the role it played in the death of the Baptist was probably not known outside of Christian circles. That is, it’s likely that this part of the story was concocted by Christians to put Herod in a bad light. Nothing really surprising there. After all, Matthew invented the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents, which certainly put the other Herod, aka Herod the Great, in a bad light. Like father, like son. The omission of Salome’s dance is all the more striking because Josephus specifically names her as the daughter of Herodias, and niece to Herod the Executor because she was the child of the Executor’s brother.

There are several other glaring differences between the two accounts. One is that Josephus does not describe John as a hermit-figure, dressed in camel skin and living in the desert. That only shows up in the NT version. Now, there is a passage in which Josephus describes how he lived among the Essenes, but nowhere does Josephus even allude to, let alone actively posit, a relationship between John and the Essenes. This relationship has all-but been taken for granted by Christians, and NT scholars–a large portion of whom are present or former Christian ministers, or students of the NT from a background of a believer in the message of the NT. But this connection is based solely on the evidence of the NT, and this is not quite all the evidence we have. We also have Josephus, who tells something of a different story.

Josephus also omits the assertion of the NT that Herod was afraid to kill John because he feared the reaction of the people. Instead, Josephus tells us Herod was afraid of the reaction of the people if he didn’t kill John. This is basically a flat-out contradiction of what the NT tells us. Which is more credible? The bottom line is that there is no real evidence to help us decide one way or the other. Then the question becomes, while we have to choose which is more credible, is there reason to suspect that one party had incentive to be inventive? As for Josephus, by the time we was writing, the Jewish War was thirty years gone, but he was living on an imperial pension. As such, we would suspect his motivation to be to downplay certain events that would not sit well with Rome. On the face, the possibility of John fomenting rebellion would not play well in imperial circles. BUT–Herod’s swift action to stop any rebellion might play well. So Herod has incentive to play John up, or play John down as a potential rebel.

What about the followers of Jesus? What is their motivation? To answer this question, I think we need to bear in mind that the followers of Jesus, dating back to the time of Mark, if not before, had invented the story of Salome’s dance, As such, the credibility of the NT writers is suspect. They also had reason, especially when Mark wrote, to dissociate from any potential seditious elements. Would there be a benefit to them to paint John as a revolutionary? None that I can think of after due consideration. So we have the followers of Jesus, who wished to identify themselves with John, with a pretty strong incentive to squash John the Rebel. Since Josephus could have a reason to either way, and he chooses to portray John thus, the weight of evidence comes down–albeit slightly–on the side of Josephus’ account being more accurate. A caveat should be added, however. Josephus indicates that Herod feared John might do this intentionally, but it is possible that the uprising may have only been inspired by John, who stirred up religious feeling among the Jews to the point that others with more overtly political motives might have turned it–contrary to John’s intent–into a political movement. The division between religion and politics was not all that well demarcated in Jewish tradition.

More, the followers of Jesus had another reason to invent their version. By adding the reluctance of Jewish authorities–here, a secular authority–to kill the Baptist, this episode becomes a foreshadow of the story that they would tell about the attitude of the religious authorities towards Jesus: they were afraid of how the people would react to an execution. And yet, in both cases, John and Jesus were executed, and there were no real repercussions. So, in my judgement, the (proto-) Christian tradition had more reason to suppress a potential rebellion by John more than Josephus had reason to invent it. But this is a judgement, and nothing more. But take it a step further, and think about all of this in context. It seems plausible that Mark inherited several set-piece stories from the tradition. My favourite, of course, is that of the Gerasene demonaic. The death of the Baptist is another. The tandem of the bleeding woman/daughter of Jairus is a third. Another is the story of Jesus returning to his home town. The biggest, of course, is the Passion story. Mark inherited these, but that’s not to say he didn’t adapt them. Mark wrote at a delicate time in Roman-Jewish/Christian relations. He had reason to soft-pedal Roman involvement in the death of Jesus. One way to do that was to downplay any possible seditious motives among Jesus followers. It would also help to downplay them among John’s followers, since there was a perceived overlap of these two groups. Since the motivations of the religious authorities in Jerusalem, and the death of the Baptist have both come to us through the lens of Mark, we need to ask if there weren’t some conscious shaping of the two stories by that author. By the time we get to Matthew, much of Mark’s motivation may have dissipated, but the stories were left behind, and these stories became canonical.


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 August 15, 2015, in Chapter 14, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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