Matthew Chapter 15:1-20

So we begin Chapter 15. Since there are 28 chapters, this is the beginning of the second half. However, chapters vary in length, so as far as actual length, we may be ahead or behind that milestone.

1 Τότε προσέρχονται τῷ Ἰησοῦ ἀπὸ Ἱεροσολύμων Φαρισαῖοι καὶ γραμματεῖς λέγοντες,

2 Διὰ τί οἱ μαθηταί σου παραβαίνουσιν τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν πρεσβυτέρων; οὐ γὰρ νίπτονται τὰς χεῖρας [αὐτῶν] ὅταν ἄρτον ἐσθίωσιν.

3 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Διὰ τί καὶ ὑμεῖς παραβαίνετε τὴν ἐντολὴν τοῦ θεοῦ διὰ τὴν παράδοσιν ὑμῶν;

4 ὁ γὰρ θεὸς εἶπεν, Τίμα τὸν πατέρα καὶ τὴν μητέρα, καί, Ὁ κακολογῶν πατέρα ἢ μητέρα θανάτῳ τελευτάτω:

5 ὑμεῖς δὲ λέγετε, Ὃς ἂν εἴπῃ τῷ πατρὶ ἢ τῇ μητρί, Δῶρον ὃ ἐὰν ἐξ ἐμοῦ ὠφεληθῇς,

6 οὐ μὴ τιμήσει τὸν πατέρα αὐτοῦ: καὶ ἠκυρώσατε τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ διὰ τὴν παράδοσιν ὑμῶν.

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem saying, (2) “Through what reason do your disciples transgress the things having been handed across of our elders? For they do not wash [ their ] hands when they eat bread”. (3) He (Jesus) answering, said to them, “Through what reason do you transgress the commandments of God through your things having been handed down? (4) For God said, ‘Honour your father and mother’, and ‘The one reviling his father or mother, let him be put to death’. (5) But you say, ‘Should one say to his father or his mother, “If a votive offering which from me might profit you, it will not honor his father”‘. (6) And you have annulled the word of God through your things having been handed down (= “traditions)”. 

Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; and honor not his father or his mother, [ he shall be free ]. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.

I’ve provided the text of the KJV of Verses 5-6, just to demonstrate that they don’t particularly translate well into English. And in fact, note that the KJV adds the [ he shall be free ]; this phrase is neither in the original, nor in any of the other translations I checked. I believe the meaning can be parsed out, but it’s not exactly pellucid, as Prof CP Jones used to say. The idea is that people are giving to God (as a votive offering; such offerings are, by definition, offered to God/a god), then one is not using this same gift to honor one’s parents. This is a little tricky, because I think here is a case where my understanding of the verb “to honor” probably doesn’t catch the sense of what the verb would be in the Hebrew reading of the Decalogue. Plus, there is a level of understanding of Jewish custom here that I’m probably missing. Then too, I recall–quite clearly, in fact–that this passage in Mark was also grammatically challenging. I think the thing is that it’s difficult to sort this out unless or until one has a sense of what the topic is. That helps. Even so, the second “honor”, as in the back half of Verse 5, would have a different feel in Hebrew. I think I understand the Greek concept a little too well here. 

Really, though, the point is plain enough. Mark used the Hebrew term, “corban”, which was something given for the sole use of God (or the Temple. Hmmm…potential conflict of interest on the part of the priests?). the idea is that, once dedicated to God, it could not then be taken back and so given over to the use of an aged parent who perhaps had fallen on hard times. Thus, what Jesus is railing against is what reformers of the Roman Catholic church would use as criticism: that the money was sucked out of people, giving it to the church, thereby taking it away from people who may need it worse. It was such “useless” use of Capital that led Engels to conclude that the point of the Reformation, but even more so, the German Peasant War of 1525, was to create what is so charmingly translated as a “cheap church”. This was part of the reason that the Reformed Church, which became, or merged with English Puritanism, was so opposed to the Popish ostentation of stained glass, ornaments of precious metal, etc. Some of these issues have a long subsequent history.

I don’t really have much to say on the actual practice described. From that long and subsequent history, I can appreciate the problems a tradition like this can and did cause. I cannot, however, speak to whether this was a common practice, or just how common. Enough so that Mark assumed his audience would get it.

Which leads to another interesting point. Mark used the Hebrew term; Matthew does not. Why not? Well, the obvious answer that comes to mind is that he didn’t expect his audience would understand the word. He also omitted the “talitha koum’ from the story of Jairus’ daughter. Does this mean that he was writing for Greek-speaking Jews? That is entirely possible. Could it mean that he’s writing for Greek-speaking former pagans? That is equally possible. On behalf of the former interpretation, it can be pointed out that Matthew does not explain the practice here. He essentially re-writes Mark, without that much re-writing. Matthew adds nothing to make the meaning more explicable to non-Jews. But is this a valid point? We have seen that Matthew tends to subtract from Mark’s stories, except when he adds details that would serve to underscore the divinity of Jesus. That would not happen here, so this is not a point where Matthew was likely to add anything. My final assessment is that there is really nothing that would indicate one way or the other. It fits with my perceived pattern that Matthew was writing for pagans, but I cannot say that there is any real evidence here. 

1 Tunc accedunt ad Iesum ab Hierosolymis pharisaei et scribae dicentes:

2 “Quare discipuli tui transgrediuntur traditionem seniorum? Non enim lavant manus suas, cum panem manducant”.

3 Ipse autem respondens ait illis: “Quare et vos transgredimini mandatum Dei propter traditionem vestram?

4 Nam Deus dixit: “Honora patrem tuum et matrem” et: “Qui maledixerit patri vel matri, morte moriatur”.

5 Vos autem dicitis: “Quicumque dixerit patri vel matri: Munus est, quodcumque ex me profuerit,

6 non honorificabit patrem suum”; et irritum fecistis verbum Dei propter traditionem vestram.

7 ὑποκριταί, καλῶς ἐπροφήτευσεν περὶ ὑμῶν Ἠσαΐας λέγων,

8 Ὁ λαὸς οὗτος τοῖς χείλεσίν με τιμᾷ, ἡ δὲ καρδία αὐτῶν πόρρω ἀπέχει ἀπ’ ἐμοῦ:

9 μάτην δὲ σέβονταί με, διδάσκοντες διδασκαλίας ἐντάλματα ἀνθρώπων.

“Hypocrites! It was well prophesied about you by Isaiah, saying, (8) ‘This people may honour me with their lips, but their hearts remain far from me. (9) In vain they worship me, teaching doctrines (and) commandments of men’.”

To be frank, I do not believe that Isaiah lived in the 8th Century BCE. In fact, I doubt that he lived at all. I am becoming increasingly of the opinion that much of the HS was written during the Babylonian Exile. What started me down this path was coming across the term “literary prophets”. It strikes me that this is largely a contradiction in terms. Prophets do not sit in a room and write; they are out prophesying. Yes, the prophet’s words may have been written down later; but then we have to ask if they are still and truly the words of the prophet? Rather, I see Isaiah as another after the fact foretelling of the fall of Judah to Babylon. I feel much the same about Ezekiel; he was written later to explain the fall of Israel. (And I also read Ezekiel to say that Israel was never truly part of the YHWH cultus. The creation of the “unified monarchy”, both parts loyal to YHWH was an after-the-fact creation of the kings of Judah, meant to legitimize their claim to the lands of the former Israel. This sort of mythological propaganda is very, very common.) So, yes, Judah only worshipped YHWH with their lips; that is why YHWH abandoned them to their fate and allowed the Babylonians to conquer Judah. This was an enormously traumatic event, but I would postulate that the Judeans had believed that they were special; perhaps because they had escaped Assyria when Israel hadn’t. Then came their own destruction, and they were faced with two choices: become assimilated into Babylonian culture–to facilitate this assimilation was why empires uprooted entire populations in the first place. The second choice was to remain defiant and retain their cultural identity. They chose the latter, not only retaining, but creating a national mythology, some of which was based on old stories, some of it newly forged.

For let us not forget that this was done in Babylon, the repository of two millennia of culture, of the myths and stories and history dating back to Sumer at the beginning of the Third Millennium BCE. The Judean scribes had access to all of these stories, all of this history. Maintaining records across centuries, as we are to believe the Judeans did, requires an infrastructure of scribes, a temple complex, and numerous other resources. None of this has been discovered, despite a couple of centuries of archaeological research. Yes, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, but so was Pylos in or around 1185 BCE. But we have found records from Pylos to demonstrate an elaborate palace economy. So far, there is nothing comparable from Jerusalem. I believe this is because Jerusalem had nothing comparable to the administration of Pylos, despite the claim that Jerusalem was the capital of a state much larger, and probably richer, than that of Pylos there on the western shore of Greece.

So anyway, yes, Judah only worshipped with their lips. That was the cause of their downfall. And now, after the second destruction of Jerusalem and the second temple, what better time to predict the fate “awaiting” the Jews at the hands of the Romans.

7 “Hypocritae! Bene prophetavit de vobis Isaias dicens:

8 ‘Populus hic labiis me honorat, / cor autem eorum longe est a me;

9 sine causa autem colunt me / docentes doctrinas mandata homi num’.”

10 Καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος τὸν ὄχλον εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Ἀκούετε καὶ συνίετε:

11 οὐ τὸ εἰσερχόμενον εἰς τὸ στόμα κοινοῖ τὸν ἄνθρωπον, ἀλλὰ τὸ ἐκπορευόμενον ἐκ τοῦ στόματος τοῦτο κοινοῖ τὸν ἄνθρωπον.

And calling the crowd he said to them, “Hear and understand. (11) It is not the coming into the mouth (that) defiles a person, but that coming out of the mouth defiles a person. 

Most of this is a lift and load from Mark. The part about “corban”, the citation of Isaiah, this part about the defilement. We’ve discussed this; there is probably close to zero probability that Jesus ever said anything like this. He almost certainly never directly abrogated the Jewish dietary laws. Otherwise, there would have been no need for the “synod of Jerusalem” between Paul and James to discuss this. Jesus taught to largely to Jews, and the common background of Mosaic law was simply taken as a given. It is only when Paul started converting pagans in large numbers that this became an issue. It was only then, and when Mark wrote, facing a similar problem, that it became necessary for Jesus to say something about this.

What I find more interesting is how this squares with Matthew’s statement that not an iota of the Law is to be lost.

Now, I’ve discovered Bible Hub. It is set up to provide access to a large number of commentaries, all conveniently placed on-line, so you can simply jump to a particular one. A cursory skim demonstrates a variety of ways in which this passage does not mean Jesus was directly contravening Mosaic Law. Here, as in the passage about corban, Jesus is said to be attacking the additional rules added by men. I am not versed enough in Deuteronomy or Leviticus or Numbers to have an intelligent opinion. Even so, I cannot help but see the parallel arguments in the 1500s, as reformers tried to sweep away any accruals to the faith created by the Church and tradition. Of course, it’s likely that many commentators on this passage see this same underlying parallel. As such, it’s best to be cautious about this interpretation. My position that this was not said by Jesus makes the understanding much more straightforward: this passage itself is a later accrual, and I do believe it was meant to revoke the prohibitions against eating pork and the rest. This does not, however, explain how this fits with Matthew’s “not an iota” proclamation, but I wonder if Matthew even saw a contradiction here, or even a potential contradiction. I tend to suspect not. Why not? Because he’s not writing systematic theology, where everything has to fit in a consistent manner. He is telling us a Truth, and Truth defies conventional notions of factual accuracy and consistency.

10 Et convocata ad se turba, dixit eis: “ Audite et intellegite:

11 Non quod intrat in os, coinquinat hominem; sed quod procedit ex ore, hoc coinquinat hominem! ”.

12 Τότε προσελθόντες οἱ μαθηταὶ λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Οἶδας ὅτι οἱ Φαρισαῖοι ἀκούσαντες τὸν λόγον ἐσκανδαλίσθησαν;

13 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Πᾶσα φυτεία ἣν οὐκ ἐφύτευσεν ὁ πατήρ μου ὁοὐράνιος ἐκριζωθήσεται.

 Then the disciples coming to (him) said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees hearing the word/story were skandalized?” (lit = ‘stumbled’) (13) And answering he said, “Every plant which my heavenly father did not plant will be uprooted”.

This is the second, if not third time we have have come across an implication similar to that in Verse 13. Completing the theme from Verses 8-9, Jesus is “predicting” that the Pharisees will be uprooted. It’s hard not to see this as yet another post-facto prediction of the “coming” destruction of the Temple. But the prediction is not the salient point here (or is “salient point” redundant? I believe it probably is…) What matters is that the prediction is leveled at the Pharisees. Who were they? Just a group within the larger body of Judaic beliefs in the First Century. This verse seems to conflate the Pharisees with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. The two where by no means synonymous. The Pharisees were, according to Josephus, a numerous group, one identified by a belief in the resurrection of the body–among other things, no doubt, but this is one that Josephus singles out. The authorities, by definition, were a small group. There was probably a certain clustering of their religious outlook, but this probably centered on believing that they were the most suited to run the province for the Romans under the aegis of the governor, Pilate. To the best of my knowledge, the Pharisees were not destroyed during, or in the aftermath of the Jewish War. The implication of Josephus is that they were too numerous, and probably too widely dispersed to be eradicated, or even decimated, by the War. Saul identifies himself–with some pride, it seems–as a Pharisee, and he was from Tarsus.

The point of all of this is that we are being given a picture of Judea & Galilee that does not reflect the reality of the time of Jesus. The picture is perhaps not so much wrong as it is growing fuzzy around the edges. The situation depicted is not in sharp focus; a generation after the war, close to three after the death of Jesus, probably at a geographic remove, Matthew telling the story is not entirely clear on the details of how it was during Jesus’ life. This has a couple of pertinent implications. First, this should be a klaxon warning us that the tenuous hold on historicity has loosened significantly. The people telling the stories have forgotten a lot of the details; given this, it is imperative that we handle any would-be claims to historical accuracy with extreme caution, to the point of prejudice. And beyond this, the historicity of Luke and John should be largely disregarded unless there is a very powerful reason to accept what they say. And even then, anything that we may be convinced to take as factual should be regarded as isolated incidents. In The Jesus Dynasty, James Tabor swallows Luke’s story that Jesus and the Baptist were cousins pretty much whole, then compounds this horrific lapse of judgement by going along to the claims that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier named Pantera, that the so-called James ossuary is authentic, and that we have found the family tomb of Jesus. He’s cagey enough that he doesn’t exactly say these things in so many words–except for the relationship between Jesus and John, which he states as definitive–but there’s no doubt about his sentiments. Tacitus was the master of this: present the insinuation in such a way that the reader is left with the impression that it’s true, regardless of the absence of real proof.

The second implication is that this also adds a stroke or two of shading to my contention that Matthew was a pagan. As such, he is less likely to have a decent grasp on the ins and outs of the situation in Judea and Galilee fifty years prior. To stress once again, there is no definite proof that Matthew was a pagan. The default starting position is, and should be, that he was Jewish. However, there is a growing accumulation of little things like this that, IMO, make me question this assumption. At the very least, the question of Matthew as a pagan should be asked and answered in a serious manner. IMO, there is more evidence for Matthew being a pagan than there is for the existence of Q, and yet the latter is simply taken on faith, and taken as a given.

12 Tunc accedentes discipuli dicunt ei: “ Scis quia pharisaei, audito verbo, scandalizati sunt? ”.

13 At ille respondens ait: “Omnis plantatio, quam non plantavit Pater meus caelestis, eradicabitur.

14 ἄφετε αὐτούς: τυφλοί εἰσιν ὁδηγοί [τυφλῶν]: τυφλὸς δὲ τυφλὸν ἐὰν ὁδηγῇ, ἀμφότεροι εἰς βόθυνον πεσοῦνται.

“Leave them. They are blind guides. If the blind guides the blind, both into a ditch will fall”.

Two points about the Greek. The word here is that the blind are guiding the blind; they are not leading them. The difference in some way is slight; it probably has more to say about the English than the Greek. But there is a difference. Yes, we put our trust in a guide, we follow them on faith, but there is also a sense that a guide is a hireling. It’s someone we pay to conduct us through a museum, or in the wilderness, or whatever. A “leader” completely lacks this aspect of the term “guide”. As such, I think the difference is worth noting. It’s also worth noting that Luke repeats this word. So of course, this is a result of Q.

Secondly, the word that I’ve translated as “ditch” is an NT word. There are no extant uses if the word by Classical Greek–or even Hellenistic Greek–authors. I should note that there is a difference between Hellenistic Greek and koine Greek. The Hellenistic Age begins after the death of Alexander, at the point where most of the Eastern Mediterranean is controlled by Greek-speakers. This is no longer Classical Greek, but it hasn’t devolved into koine; many later writers, like Marcus Aurelius, wrote Greek of a complexity comparable to that of Classical authors. Koine, OTOH, has been greatly simplified. So we have no examples of this word outside the NT.

As such, this means that NT scholars and translators have the privilege of deciding what this word means. I tend to suspect that they may have cribbed from the Vulgate. The Latin rendering is a common enough word in Latin, so “ditch” or “pit” is a perfectly reasonable rendering of the Greek here. And let’s face it: when you fall into something, unless we’re using the expression metaphorically, whether it’s a ditch, or a pit really doesn’t make a lot of difference. The point is that, once again, this is a consensus translation. There have been many, many fewer of these in the Gospels than there were in Paul’s early letters, but they do occur,

14 Sinite illos: caeci sunt, duces caecorum. Caecus autem si caeco ducatum praestet, ambo in foveam cadent ”.

15 Ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Πέτρος εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Φράσον ἡμῖν τὴν παραβολήν [ταύτην].

16 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν, Ἀκμὴν καὶ ὑμεῖς ἀσύνετοί ἐστε;

17 οὐ νοεῖτε ὅτι πᾶν τὸ εἰσπορευόμενον εἰς τὸ στόμα εἰς τὴν κοιλίαν χωρεῖ καὶ εἰς ἀφεδρῶνα ἐκβάλλεται;

18 τὰ δὲ ἐκπορευόμενα ἐκ τοῦ στόματος ἐκ τῆς καρδίας ἐξέρχεται, κἀκεῖνα κοινοῖ τὸν ἄνθρωπον.

19 ἐκ γὰρ τῆς καρδίας ἐξέρχονται διαλογισμοὶ πονηροί, φόνοι, μοιχεῖαι, πορνεῖαι, κλοπαί, ψευδομαρτυρίαι, βλασφημίαι.

20 ταῦτά ἐστιν τὰ κοινοῦντα τὸν ἄνθρωπον, τὸ δὲ ἀνίπτοις χερσὶν φαγεῖν οὐ κοινοῖ τὸν ἄνθρωπον.

But answering, Peter said to him, “Explain to us this parable.” (16) And he said, “As of yet are you void of understanding”. (17) Do you not know that all things coming into the mouth goes to the latrine and in the running away is cast out? (18) And the things coming out of the mouth come out of the heart, and these things are pollute a person. (19) For the things coming from the heart are inner thoughts (that are) evil ones, murders, adulteries, depravities, thefts, perjuries, blasphemies. (20) These are the things polluting humans, the unwashing hands to eat does not defile people.”

This is another lift and load from Mark, right down to a lot of the vocabulary. Certainly, the “are you void of understanding” is a real hearkening back to Mark. And I had just commented about how Jesus does not get exasperated with his disciples. Here he singles out Peter.

This just occurred to me. We have had very few mentions of the names of any of the disciples so far. This is the fifth occurrence of Peter’s name, and two of them were in the walking on water story. Sneaking a peek ahead (spoiler alert!) I see that Peter’s name becomes much more common as we progress through the rest of the gospel. I’m not sure what this indicates, but there is likely some significance since the same phenomenon occurs, to maybe a lesser degree, in the other three gospels as well. Note this includes John, so it’s not just a matter of following Mark’s lead. I believe that, to some large degree, the disciples represent later additions; we will note that John tells us that Andrew, the brother of Peter, had originally been a disciple of John, and that it was Andrew who recruited Peter rather than Jesus himself. And we have an anecdote about the addition of Nathaniel and Philip; the former is a virtual non-entity in Mark and Matthew. In fact, Nathaniel is a complete non-person in the Synoptics, his name only occurring in John.

The growing role of the disciples–to the point where John adds someone new–is an indication of the way the layers begin to settle on top of the original story. The earlier parts of the story deal with Jesus the teacher; the later parts add the Transfiguration, the warning of the destruction of the Temple, and the Passion Narrative. The disciples play more prominent roles in those sections than they do earlier, when they’re largely relegated to the background.  Mary of Magdala is another such; these are the characters that later join the story to give it a richer sense of narrative. In the same way the Arthur legend accumulated characters: Merlyn was probably the first, then Guinevere, probably then Launcelot, and much later we get Percivale, Bors, Elaine and Galahad, Gawaine and Mordred, until the whole assemblage is complied by Malory in Le Morte D’Arthur in 1485.

There is significance in the roles played by each of the later additions. They represent different traditions; John’s introduction of Nathaniel–who is not in the Synoptics–probably represents someone known by the author of John. To give the source more credibility, John then adds Nathaniel to the original Twelve. If I were James Tabor, I would suggest that Nathaniel was one of the “eyewitnesses” John mentions during the crucifixion narrative (Jn 19:35). In such cases, John may have gotten some of his material from Nathaniel; as the members of the author of John’s circle may have known Nathaniel, so John had to impart a level of credibility to Nathaniel by making him not only a disciple, but an original disciple. Or, given the time lapse, someone known to the author of John may have had an aged teacher named Nathaniel, whom John promoted to original Twelve status. This is often how–or why–such additions are made. 

15 Respondens autem Petrus dixit ei: “Edissere nobis parabolam istam”.

16 At ille dixit: “ Adhuc et vos sine intellectu estis?

17 Non intellegitis quia omne quod in os intrat, in ventrem vadit et in secessum emittitur?

18 Quae autem procedunt de ore, de corde exeunt, et ea coinquinant hominem.

19 De corde enim exeunt cogitationes malae, homicidia, adulteria, fornicationes, furta, falsa testimonia, blasphemiae.

20 Haec sunt, quae coinquinant hominem; non lotis autem manibus manducare non coinquinat hominem ”.

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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 August 20, 2015, in Chapter 15, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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