Matthew Chapter 15:29-39 (conclusion)

This post will conclude Chapter 15. I don’t expect this will require a lot of time* since it’s the Feeding of the 4,000, and we just had the Feeding of the 5,000 last chapter. I have never quite understood why both of these stories were retained. They obviously represent a ‘twinning’ of the same event that came down to Mark through two distinct channels. This happens fairly frequently in oral traditions; there are a number of such twins, for example, in Book I of Livy’s History of Rome. What this twinning represents is the same story being told by two different groups that are not in contact with each other. As a result, the details vary to some degree, and when they are collected together, the author compiling the two traditions can’t decide which is the correct–or more correct–version, so both are included. Such is what happened here, I suspect.

*Of course, it took rather longer than I’d anticipated. Oh well.

29 Καὶ μεταβὰς ἐκεῖθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἦλθεν παρὰ τὴν θάλασσαν τῆς Γαλιλαίας, καὶ ἀναβὰς εἰς τὸ ὄρος ἐκάθητο ἐκεῖ.

And having crossed from there, Jesus came along the Sea of Galilee and having gone up the mountain he sat himself there.

This starts much as the 5,000 did: Jesus crossing the sea, then going up the mountain. This opening helps bolster the argument that this is a twinning of one event, since they both start with the same concept. The difference here is that Matthew doesn’t go out of his way to stress just how lonely and desolate and isolated this location is. Recall how he did that in his lead-up to the feeding of the 5,000.

29 Et cum transisset inde, Iesus venit secus mare Galilaeae et ascendens in montem sedebat ibi.

30 καὶ προσῆλθον αὐτῷ ὄχλοι πολλοὶ ἔχοντες μεθ’ ἑαυτῶν χωλούς, τυφλούς, κυλλούς, κωφούς, καὶ ἑτέρους πολλούς, καὶ ἔρριψαν αὐτοὺς παρὰ τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐθεράπευσεν αὐτούς:

31 ὥστε τὸν ὄχλον θαυμάσαι βλέποντας κωφοὺς λαλοῦντας, κυλλοὺς ὑγιεῖς, καὶ χωλοὺς περιπατοῦντας καὶ τυφλοὺς βλέποντας: καὶ ἐδόξασαν τὸν θεὸν Ἰσραήλ.

And came to him a multitudinous crown having with them lame, blind, maimed, mute, and many others, and they cast themselves down by his feet, and he healed them, (31) so that to amaze the crowd seeing the mute speaking, the maimed whole, and the lame walking about, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel.

This is a significant passage, I think. Mark does not include this in either of his Feeding stories. Why does Matthew add it? On the one hand, put here the way it is, the story gets a little lost in the shuffle. On the other, it gets paired with the healing of the daughter of the Canaanite woman, so we have back-to-back wonders being worked. As I look at this, and consider Mark in relationship to Matthew, I am becoming more convinced that the baseline story of Jesus was about him as a wonder-worker. We noted that those are the stories that take up the first half of Mark’s gospel, and that they only give way to the Christ tradition sometime after Chapter 8. Or we could say that we start this in earnest with the story of the Transfiguration in Chapter 9. That is when Jesus more or less stops working wonders and becomes a divine figure.

Here in Matthew, OTOH, the miracles get short-shrift. The stories are shorter, more cursory, including summaries like we get here. Yes, those are present in Mark, too, but I think that we’ve gotten a higher proportion of summaries here in Matthew. What does this mean? Well, I think it’s another blow to the Q theory. The Q proponents would have us believe that Jesus’ teachings were the fundamental story that was told about him after his death. The wonder-worker thesis contradicts that directly, claiming that the miracles were the basis for retelling Jesus’ story. And yet, it was the Christ tradition that Paul stressed, and I don’t believe Paul even mentions Jesus performing any wonders. Even in the Great Miracle of the resurrection, Jesus was a passive object, who was raised from the dead by God. Jesus didn’t do this by himself, because he was God, but God intervened and performed the act. But this gets us back to the James/Paul dichotomy. Paul was preaching outside Judea, mostly to pagans. James was preaching in Judea, in Jerusalem, presumably to Jews. Did they have different messages? Or perhaps different emphases? Remember the “other gospels” of 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians. 

Since Paul was preaching to pagans and stressing the Christ tradition, and Matthew stressed the Christ tradition, is this possibly (more) evidence that Matthew was a pagan?

Did anyone catch the non-sequitur in that last question? The connection between the Christ tradition and pagans made a lot of sense when I wrote it. The connection was absolutely clear and firm in my mind. Now…not so much. If anyone is familiar with Jacques Derrida and Deconstructionism, IIRC this is what is meant by “slippage” between thoughts and writing. The former is a solid connection; we know what we mean when we say it. But once it gets into that email…man, it could be taken a dozen different ways, and most of them bad. While I never quite went the distance with Derrida, he did make it very difficult to argue there is a single correct interpretation, and that even the author may not have been fully aware of the implications. And that is true: think of the unfortunate email you sent to your boss, or a colleague, or a friend that got completely misconstrued. No, that wasn’t what you meant, but it sure could be taken that way.

The point is, we have to ask if the Christ message was more acceptable to pagans. In particular, we have to ask if Jesus-as-divine wasn’t more acceptable to pagans. I’ve made this point previously; the divine god-on-earth, a son of a god was a familiar concept to pagans. It was mostly–if perhaps not entirely–foreign to Jewish thought. I say “mostly” for a reason. I’m reading The Jewish Gospel by Daniel Boyarin, who is a Jewish scholar, expert on the HS. He points out that the so-called “High Christology”, in which Jesus was seen as divine has been seen as a pagan formulation. In the centuries after Jesus, Jews also pressed this interpretation as a disparagement, that Christianity was more pagan than Jewish. The “Low Christology”, in which Jesus was seen as a human has been seen as an outgrowth of Judaism. And this division is more or less my point. As one more versed in pagan lore than the NT, I see the footprints of pagan thought all over the place in Jesus’ teachings; whether they date back to Jesus, or were layered on afterwards, is another discussion. Boyarin isn’t quite so sure. He argues that the “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7 was understood as a divine being, not a human by Jews of the time. However, the point remains that even Jews of the Second and Third Centuries saw the pagan elements of Christianity. Ergo, I’m not completely beyond the Pale on this.

Still, the question remains of proving that stressing pagan sensibilities indicates that Matthew was a pagan. Of course it doesn’t. But once again, we’re in the realm of preponderance of evidence. “Matthew” (whatever the author’s real name was) could have been in the tradition of Paul, emphasizing the Christ. But Paul didn’t take the next step and deify Jesus before the crucifixion. Matthew does. Mark didn’t. It could be a “logical” progression. But what makes it logical? The evolution of the idea in a pagan context, in which gods sired children who walked the earth. This is not at all so logical in a Jewish context. So I think that, in the end, it comes down to whether one believes it’s more likely that Matthew was a Jew who became paganized, or a pagan who studied Judaism as a God-fearer? I’m still going with the latter. 

30 Et accesserunt ad eum turbae multae habentes secum claudos, caecos, debiles, mutos et alios multos et proiecerunt eos ad pedes eius, et curavit eos,

31 ita ut turba miraretur videntes mutos loquentes, debiles sanos et claudos ambulantes et caecos videntes. Et magnificabant Deum Israel.

32 Ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς προσκαλεσάμενος τοὺς μαθητὰς αὐτοῦ εἶπεν, Σπλαγχνίζομαι ἐπὶ τὸν ὄχλον, ὅτι ἤδη ἡμέραι τρεῖς προσμένουσίν μοι καὶ οὐκ ἔχουσιν τί φάγωσιν: καὶ ἀπολῦσαι αὐτοὺς νήστεις οὐ θέλω, μήποτε ἐκλυθῶσιν ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ.

Jesus having called to him his disciples said, “I have compassion upon the crowd, that already three days they have followed me and they have nothing to eat.  And to disperse them fasting I do not wish, lest they faint on the road.”

First, I want to know where the three days of following came from. I do not at all get that impression from the text here. But it is in Mark, so there’s my answer. And the last bit about not wanting them to faint on the road is also in Mark.

Second, I read some of the commentaries on this at Several of them fall all over themselves to insist that this is not a mere replication of the 5,000. They cite the different vocabularies and other such; of course, they’re right. The vocabularies are different, even if the set-up is very similar. But that is precisely how twins are formed. They start from the same event, or account of an event, and then the story takes divergent paths for a few years, or a decade. Then they each come to the ear of a single person who is interested in writing the stories down–like Mark–and they are different enough to be judged different events.

32 Iesus autem convocatis discipulis suis dixit: “Misereor turbae, quia triduo iam perseverant mecum et non habent, quod manducent; et dimittere eos ieiunos nolo, ne forte deficiant in via”.

33 καὶ λέγουσιν αὐτῷ οἱ μαθηταί, Πόθεν ἡμῖν ἐν ἐρημίᾳ ἄρτοι τοσοῦτοι ὥστε χορτάσαι ὄχλον τοσοῦτον;

34 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Πόσους ἄρτους ἔχετε; οἱ δὲ εἶπαν, Ἑπτά, καὶ ὀλίγα ἰχθύδια.

And the disciples said to him, “Where for us in this lonely place is so much bread so that to feed such a crowd?” (34) And said to them Jesus, “How many loaves do you have?” Then they said, “Seven, and a little of fish.”  

Ah, those disciples. The ever-ready straight-men who always serve up the verbal softball to set Jesus up to knock it out of the park. (Note: “straight man” is an old Vaudeville term. In a comedy duo, the straight man’s job was to deliver the set-up line so that the other partner could deliver the punchline and get the laughs.) That aside, notice that we’re suddenly back in that lonely, desolate place, just as we were in the Feeding 5,000. Finally, the word for “bread” and “loaf” is the same word. It’s one of those circumstances where “loaf” came to mean “of bread” and nothing else. Sort of like, “a cuppa”, as in, “do you want a cuppa” is understood to mean “cuppa tea”, and not “cuppa juice” or anything else.

33 Et dicunt ei discipuli: “ Unde nobis in deserto panes tantos, ut saturemus turbam tantam?”.

34 Et ait illis Iesus: “Quot panes habetis? ”. At illi dixerunt: “Septem et paucos pisciculos”.

35 καὶ παραγγείλας τῷ ὄχλῳ ἀναπεσεῖν ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν.

And he announced to the crowd to sit on the ground. 

Notice this time there isn’t any grass.

35 Et praecepit turbae, ut discumberet super terram;

36 ἔλαβεν τοὺς ἑπτὰ ἄρτους καὶ τοὺς ἰχθύας καὶ εὐχαριστήσας ἔκλασεν καὶ ἐδίδου τοῖς μαθηταῖς, οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶτοῖς ὄχλοις.

37 καὶ ἔφαγον πάντες καὶ ἐχορτάσθησαν, καὶ τὸ περισσεῦον τῶν κλασμάτων ἦραν, ἑπτὰ σπυρίδας πλήρεις.

And he took the seven loaves, and the fish, and having blessed (them) he broke (them) and gave to the disciples, and the disciples to the crowd (gave to the crowd). (37) And all ate and they were satiated, and they took up the pieces, seven measures full.

Here’s another big link to the story of the 5,000. The word rendered as “pieces”, or could be “fragments” is used 6 or 8 times in the NT. In all cases, the word is associated with one of the feeding stories. Now, it could be that this is the only word for “fragment” in Greek. In English, we could say “piece”, or “fragment”, or “morsel”, or “broken bit”; maybe such richness of vocabulary was not available to the authors of the NT. Or it could be that this word was integrally associated with this story even before it split into twins.

Of course the fact that one story has 5,000 while the other has 4,000 is a problem, too. One could argue that it demonstrates that these are, indeed, separate incidents. That is sort of the drift of the NT commentaries that I see at biblehub. Or you could argue just the opposite, that it shows that the early followers of Jesus couldn’t get their story straight, because there was no story to get straight. It was all made up, and the different witnesses couldn’t keep their details from getting muddled. This is, after all, why suspects are interrogated separately. Or you could argue that there was never a count; that it was just “a lot”, and the different people telling the same story came up with slightly different numbers. This last one is a possibil8ity, especially when remembering the suggestion my priest had, that this was the first church potluck supper. The disciples had their contribution, everyone had something, everyone shared, and everyone got fed. How many? A lot. Maybe a thousand. A thousand? You’re nuts. It was three thousand! Way off, it was five thousand? So let’s settle on four? OK, great, Four it  is.

Aside from all that, the process of blessing and breaking is the same in both stories. However, the surprising thing would be if if weren’t the same. This is the sort of thing that later copyists would make sure were coordinated and matched, so this tells me very little about the relation between the two versions.

And of course the two versions end the same way, with the disciples collecting a substantial amount of leftovers.  So, one story split? Or two incidents that were separate from the beginning? I suspect the former, because there is really nothing substantial to indicate that we are dealing with two distinct episodes. It is not my purpose to question whether one or either actually happened, and it’s certainly not my purpose to discuss whether anything miraculous happened; rather, my purpose is to examine what the fact of the story’s inclusion tells us about the mind-set of the followers of Jesus. The twinning is great evidence for a multi-threaded tradition. More: since this is what we have been postulating, and seeing, throughout our examination, starting with Mark, this simply helps corroborate that argument. 

36 et accipiens septem panes et pisces et gratias agens fregit et dedit discipulis, discipuli autem turbis.

37 Et comederunt omnes et saturati sunt; et, quod superfuit de fragmentis, tulerunt septem sportas plenas.

38 οἱ δὲ ἐσθίοντες ἦσαν τετρακισχίλιοι ἄνδρες χωρὶς γυναικῶν καὶ παιδίων.

39 Καὶ ἀπολύσας τοὺς ὄχλους ἐνέβη εἰς τὸ πλοῖον, καὶ ἦλθεν εἰς τὰ ὅρια Μαγαδάν.

Those eating were four thousand men, excluding the women and children. (39) And dismissing the crowd, he embarked on the boat, and he came to the territory of Magada.

And we even get Jesus getting back on the boat. The only thing missing is the storm and him walking on the water.

38 Erant autem, qui manducaverant, quattuor milia hominum extra mulieres et parvulos.

39 Et dimissis turbis, ascendit in naviculam et venit in fines Magadan.


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 30, 2015, in Chapter 15, gospel commentary, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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