Summary Matthew Chapter 15

This chapter consists of three distinct stories. The first culminates with Jesus proclaiming that it is what comes out of a person that defiles him or her, not what goes in. The second is the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman, who is now described as a Canaanite. Finally, we have the Feeding of the Four Thousand.

The last will come first because, overall, it’s the least significant of the three. I have given my reasons to suspect that this is really just a twin of the 5,000. When I took a look at the chapter as a whole, the “oh, by the way” manner in which it’s handled only reinforces this idea. The story was too well-attested that Matthew, nor Mark before him, felt able to omit it, but Matthew certainly did give it short shrift. There is nothing to distinguish it from the first, except for the minor details of the number fed, the fact that there was a little fish to be distributed, and the number of baskets filled after everyone was satiated. The set-up, the setting, even the end where Jesus leaves by boat are virtually identical to the previous version of the story.

So what does this tell us? As mentioned, it indicates a strong tradition of two feeding stories. Both were well entrenched in the corpus of Jesus stories as they came down to Mark, and through Mark to Matthew. In turn, this indicates the existence of two separate groups of Jesus followers who told stories about Jesus, but neither group was aware of the other. The idea of this happening, of there being two distinct groups is something we’ve inferred for a long time now. The two feeding stories, I think, is as close to proof of this thesis as we will ever get. Really, the fact that we can, more or less, “prove” two groups is probably a good indication that there were many more. We discussed this this with Mark, and with reference to “The Life Of Brian” with it’s “Blessed are the cheese makers” routine. Presumably Jesus spoke to many people over the course of his public ministry; he may not have spoken to as many as Mark would have us believe, but it would have been substantial. And think about a setting like the Sermon on the Mount, or even these feeding stories. In them, Jesus teaches a large crowd, or even a significant crowd of a few hundred persons. These may include groups of people from different villages; upon dispersal, each went back to its native village and told other people about what they heard. Different groups would have heard or remembered different things. So, especially in the early days, there are many, many threads of Jesus lore. Over time, some of the groups coalesced, but some more quickly than others. Groups in more distant places remained isolated longer, but the threads eventually twisted into strings, which got twisted together into cables. Mark was the first to attempt to create a cable. Matthew followed suit because he felt that Mark had not told the whole story. We will come back to that, probably in a special topic entry.

The significance of the Canaanite woman is that she represents Jesus’ outreach to pagans, and the way pagans responded with strong faith. Her belief contrasts to Peter of little faith at the end of Chapter 14. This is meant to indicate that Jesus preached to pagans, and that pagans may, at least in some instances, have stronger faith than the children of Israel. Of course the story never happened; this is a clear case of invention after the fact, meant to give Jesus’ seal of approval to the pagan ministry begun by Paul. In fact, this story is actually (at least, it may be) the punchline to the previous story about defilement. And these two form the climax to the last part of Chapter 14 when Peter walked on the water; or, he did until he lost his faith in his ability to do so. Ergo, Jesus rebukes Peter as one of little faith. This is one of the few times that Matthew has Jesus speaking sharply to Peter, or any of the disciples. As such, I think it’s inclusion is very significant. We have Peter, the prominent disciple, the initial follower, lacking faith. Does he represent Israel as a whole? The first to experience Jesus’ message? And he doesn’t believe. Instead, what Israel does is turn into the Pharisees of the first part of Chapter 15. They are very concerned with washing hands, and such outward actions. But they will give to the Temple, declare something ‘corban’ rather than use it to help their elderly parents who have fallen on hard times. They are concerned with defilement from without.

It should be noted that ritual pollution was a very common notion among all peoples up to a certain point in time. It was a big deal for the Greeks. Unburied corpses were a horror to them, just as they were for the Jews. So the Pharisees’ reaction is typical of the earlier traditions. Acts had to be performed in certain ways in order to be pleasing to the gods. This is part of the rationale used by a professional priest-caste to justify their existence, and to demand that they be supported by the labor of others. But in this story of defilement, Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers. It is not what is without that matters; it is what is within. To some degree, this is the final step in the transition from shame culture to guilt culture. The former emphasizes form, the outward act, while the latter is about the inward person, the inner self. So in this section of the chapter–or the story–we get Peter’s little faith followed by the Pharisees’ nitpicking about the rules of humans, and not of God. Then comes the clincher: without ever saying so, Jesus torpedoes a good-sized chunk of Mosaic Law. Leviticus gives us a list of stuff that the children of Israel are not to eat; Jesus says this doesn’t matter. In other words, it’s acceptable to eat like a pagan.

Then we get to the climax of this three-part tale. Jesus goes to the territory of Sidon & Tyre. The purpose of the trip is to visit his biological father, Pantera, who was from Sidon, and was soon to ship out to Germany, where he would die and his funeral stele would be found almost two thousand years later. At least, that’s what James Tabor would have us believe. Color me skeptical. The fact is, we don’t know why Jesus went to Sidon & Tyre, because it’s entirely possible that he never did so. There are only a few stories of Jesus interacting with pagans; so far, we’ve had the people living around the Gerasene demonaic (they herded pigs), the centurion, and now this Canaanite woman. The first group is window dressing. Both the centurion and this Canaanite woman, however, serve as examples of the strength of faith among pagans. And in this chapter the woman, the pagan woman, shows up Peter and the Pharisees, the cream of the disciples and the cream of Jewish religious culture–according to Paul, anyway. And so it is. The torch has been passed from the children of Israel to the children of all those other gods that the followers of YHWH despised so mightily. As such, this is a very significant chapter indeed. The history of the development of the Jesus followers into Christians has taken a very big step as it has, in some ways, superseded its Jewish roots and moved out into the broader world of the pagans. This is, of course, where its future would lie.

And perhaps here is the real motive behind calling her a Canaanite instead of Syro-Phoenician. The early books of the Hebrew Scriptures is full of the conflict between Israel (and Israel as a whole as well as Israel without Judah) and the Canaanites. Many of Israel’s greatest victories and Israel’s greatest defeats were over, or at the hands of the Canaanites. True, the greatest defeat was wrought by the Assyrians, but the Assyrians were obvious enemies, and against them the Israelites could only fight. There was no negotiating, nor any fraternizing. The Assyrians were simply implacable. The Canaanites, on the other hand were more insidious, and in some ways posed the greater danger, for the Canaanites were the enemy within. The Israelites married Canaanite women and worshipped Canaanite gods, neglecting the cult of YHWH as they did so. They were seductive and welcoming and much harder to fight. Eventually, on the battlefield, Israel, perhaps, got the better of the Canaanites. But here in Chapter 15, the Canaanites got their revenge, taking the place of the Israelites in service to the One True God and to Jesus the Christ. Is that why Matthew chose to call the woman a Canaanite? Was Matthew of Canaanite heritage? Was he born into a family that worshipped Dagon, or Ba’al, or one of those despised Canaanite gods? Interesting question, is it not?


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 September 3, 2015, in Chapter 15, gospel commentary, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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