Matthew Chapter 16:1-12

At the end of the previous chapter, we had Jesus getting out of the boat at Magadan. Presumably, this is where he still is. Magadan is on the western shore of the sea, about halfway between Tiberias and Caphernaum. 

1 Καὶ προσελθόντες οἱ Φαρισαῖοι καὶ Σαδδουκαῖοι πειράζοντες ἐπηρώτησαν αὐτὸν σημεῖον ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἐπιδεῖξαι αὐτοῖς.

And some Pharisees and Sadducees coming towards, testing they asked him (for) a sign from the sky to show to them.

Question: would Pharisees and Sadducees come out in a group together like this? I seem to have the sense that the two groups were not exactly on good terms. Checking a couple of commentaries (biblehub.com is really a wonderful resource), I find that the consensus is that the two groups were putting aside their enmity in order to gang up on Jesus. I do not believe this for a moment. I say this because I do not truly believe that Jesus was that much of a radical, or that he was so popular that he threatened the religious establishment. Then, on top of this, we are in Magadan; these people were not part of the religious establishment. That consisted of the high priests and the Sanhedrin. The terms for religious authorities in Jerusalem are different; they are not simply called Pharisees and Sadducees. And it’s even more important to remember that these were groups of believers, types of believers, in no way were they a corporate body. This is perhaps akin to saying that some Catholics and some Lutherans came to talk to Jesus. OK, that’s fine, but there’s really no greater significance to the group. Some people, who have no official standing, get together to talk to, oh, let’s say John Wesley. It’s more of the set up for a joke then a menacing combination. Some Catholics and some Lutherans went to talk to John Wesley (in a bar…).

Now, given this, we may be tempted to suspect that this set-up is meaningless. In a sense that’s true; it really doesn’t have implications for what happens to Jesus eventually. However, there may be another type of significance lying just under the surface here. In effect, Matthew is setting up an unrealistic set of circumstances. More interestingly, neither Mark nor Luke combine Sadducees with Pharisees as Matthew does here. And recall that Matthew is supposed to be the most Jewish of the four evangelists. And yet he combines two groups that normally wouldn’t be combined? And he is using this to set the stage for what happens later to Jesus in Jerusalem, as if he’s implying that this group of interlocutors is related to the group that will later, supposedly, have Jesus executed? What this says to me is that Matthew was not particularly aware of the situation in Galilee/Judea during the governorship of Pilate. It also says that Matthew was not particularly aware of the differences between Pharisees and Sadducees. The latter is the more damning, in my opinion, because a good Jew could be removed from the regions of Judea and Galilee, and live fifty years after the fact and be sort of clueless about the way the government worked there at that time. Happens all the time. But it seems less forgivable that he would be unaware that the Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t really get along. And that he, and he alone, pairs the two of them like this seems to matter, too. It’s like calling the Syro-Phoenician woman a Canaanite.

1 Et accesserunt ad eum pharisaei et sadducaei tentantes et rogaverunt eum, ut signum de caelo ostenderet eis.

2 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, [Ὀψίας γενομένης λέγετε, Εὐδία, πυρράζει γὰρ ὁ οὐρανός:

3 καὶ πρωΐ, Σήμερον χειμών, πυρράζει γὰρ στυγνάζων ὁοὐρανός. τὸ μὲν πρόσωπον τοῦ οὐρανοῦ γινώσκετε διακρίνειν, τὰ δὲ σημεῖα τῶν καιρῶν οὐ δύνασθε.]

He answering said to them, [“Having become late you say, ‘Fair weather, for the sky is glowing red’. And in the morning, ‘The sign (is?) winter, for the sky is glowing red and lowering’. On the one hand the face of the sky you know how to judge, but the sign of the times you cannot.]

First, the square brackets indicate that these words of Jesus are not in all manuscript traditions. They may well be an interpolation. If I had to guess, I would guess that they are. Otherwise, we have Jesus reciting an early version of “red sky at night. Sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.” This was not in Mark, and it’s not in Luke. My sense is that it is an interpolation.

One thing to note is that he is using “ouranos” in the singular, rather than the plural. As such I think we can translate as “sky”, rather than “heavens” when it is plural. In English, of course. “heavens” is the synonym for “sky” while the singular form is Heaven. But Matthew uses the plural for the “kingdom of the heavens”, or “our father in the heavens”. I think the distinction is fair.

2 At ille respondens ait eis: “Facto vespere dicitis: “Serenum erit, rubicundum est enim caelum”;

3 et mane: “Hodie tempestas, rutilat enim triste caelum”. Faciem quidem caeli diiudicare nostis, signa autem temporum non potestis.

4 Γενεὰ πονηρὰ καὶ μοιχαλὶς σημεῖον ἐπιζητεῖ, καὶ σημεῖον οὐ δοθήσεται αὐτῇ εἰ μὴ τὸ σημεῖον Ἰωνᾶ. καὶ καταλιπὼν αὐτοὺς ἀπῆλθεν.

This generation, wicked and adulterous seeks a sign, and a sign will not be given to it other than the sign of Jonah. And leaving them, he went away. 

I’m sure most of you have been waiting for me to mention that this is something of a rerun. To be honest, I hadn’t realized that we had seen this in Matthew before until we got to the sign of Jonah. I remember it from Mark, but upon checking I note that we ran across almost the exact same story back in Chapter 12. There, Jesus also denied a sign to a wicked and adulterous generation, unless it be the sign of Jonah. In fact, the verbiage is pretty much verbatim, to the point that I pulled out my hard copy and compared the two. From the beginning of Verse 5 through the “sign of Jonah”, the words are all-but completely identical. (They seem to be identical, but I may have missed some minor discrepancy.) Now, it’s one thing when it’s a story, like feeding a large number of people, in which some of the details get changed, but it’s quite another when it’s a short passage like this that is basically word-for-word.

So what does this mean? I’m not even sure it’s appropriate to call it a twinning; more accurately, it’s a repetition. Sure, it’s possible, but it’s not like there’s any real variation between the two, nothing to indicate that it’s a separate story, except for the fact that this iteration includes Sadducees, whereas the first time it was Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. This is such an unusual occurrence that I’m not even sure there’s a term for it. What was Matthew thinking?

Whatever the answer to that last question, I think we have to question Matthew’s editorial skills. Once again, the single most major important argument for Q is that Luke would never have messed with Matthew’s “masterful” arrangement of the Q material in the Sermon on the Mount. That was a work of such extraordinary genius that it’s impossible to conceive of anyone reading it and not slavishly following the example. But if Matthew is not even paying enough attention to notice that he repeated several paragraphs, verbatim, are we really supposed to trust his other instincts as an editor? I think that this repetition gives us the right to step back and ask if Matthew really is such a master. If the answer is no, then a crucial pillar supporting the argument for Q collapses.

One last thing. Jesus is very summary in his dismissal of his interlocutors. In the version in Chapter 12, this episode ends with Jesus’ family coming to get him, in a watered-down version of Mark where some members of the crowd thought Jesus was a bit off, and his family felt that Jesus needed to be “rescued”. Since we will be going off in a boat and talking about leaven, the version here in Chapter 16 is actually the parallel to Mark’s telling of this story. For Matthew, the problem came when he intruded this part about asking for the sign into the section that properly dealt with the House Divided speech. That is, we should not be questioning why the request for a sign is here; we should have asked why it was also included back in Chapter 12. Of course, at that point I didn’t realize we were going to go into reruns quite so quickly.

4 Generatio mala et adultera signum quaerit, et signum non dabitur ei, nisi signum Ionae ”. Et, relictis illis, abiit.

5 Καὶ ἐλθόντες οἱ μαθηταὶ εἰς τὸ πέραν ἐπελάθοντο ἄρτους λαβεῖν.

6 ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Ὁρᾶτε καὶ προσέχετε ἀπὸ τῆς ζύμης τῶν Φαρισαίων καὶ Σαδδουκαίων.

7 οἱ δὲ διελογίζοντο ἐν ἑαυτοῖς λέγοντες ὅτι Ἄρτους οὐκ ἐλάβομεν.

8 γνοὺς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν, Τί διαλογίζεσθε ἐν ἑαυτοῖς, ὀλιγόπιστοι, ὅτι ἄρτους οὐκ ἔχετε;

9 οὔπω νοεῖτε, οὐδὲ μνημονεύετε τοὺς πέντε ἄρτους τῶν πεντακισχιλίων καὶ πόσους κοφίνους ἐλάβετε;

10 οὐδὲ τοὺς ἑπτὰ ἄρτους τῶν τετρακισχιλίων καὶ πόσας σπυρίδας ἐλάβετε;

And coming, the disciples went to the other shore having forgotten to take bread. (6) And Jesus said to them, “Look out and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees”. (7) But they were dialoguing amongst themselves that they had not taken bread. (8) But knowing, Jesus said, “What are you dialoguing amongst yourselves, ones of little faith, that you did not bring bread? (9) How do you not know, nor remember the five loaves of the five thousand and how many baskets you collected? (10) Nor the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many measures you collected?   

This is partially what I mean about how the request for a sign belongs here, and not in its previous location back in Chapter 12. The story here follows the progression of Mark, starting with the request for the sign. And here we even get some of the attitude Jesus had in Mark. He’s exasperated, annoyed, and a bit sarcastic. Dullards! Don’t you get it? You’re talking about bread when you witnessed not one, but two feedings of huge crowds with a few loaves of bread. We even get the repetition of “you of little faith” that we first got when Peter decided he couldn’t walk on water. This is not a word that Mark used at all, but it’s a tone and an implication that we often found in Mark. 

The point about the yeast of the Pharisees is that the latter would not believe without a sign. Jesus is telling the disciples that they have seen several signs, notably the dual feedings of the large crowds. So the point becomes, why did Matthew choose to retain this attitude, which is more appropriate to Mark than it is to Matthew? We have the clueless disciples who are of little faith and an exasperated Jesus who has grown petulant with his chosen few. This is how Mark portrayed the inner workings of Jesus and the Twelve (Or the Five: Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Judas Iscariot. Who else is mentioned in the Synoptics? Aside from the passage where their names are given?). So why does Matthew carry this over, virtually unchanged? We have seen him edit Mark before this, cut out a sentence or two, change the direction, or the implication of another, so it’s not like he follows Mark to the letter. So we have to ask, Why? And/or, Why here?

I’m not sure I have an answer at the moment. Mark did this, I have suggested, to explain what happened to the believers in Judea and Galilee. As in, why weren’t there any? So the initial impulse is to suggest the same thing for Matthew here. To explain why, once again, the followers of Jesus were now (as of when Matthew was writing) mostly pagan. Even for Matthew, even the innermost circle of Jesus’ followers were ‘of little faith’, and unable to penetrate the shield of the parables Jesus spread around his teachings. And seriously, the only one of these that is truly attested by an independent source is Peter. James, of course, is mentioned by Paul, but the latter is the brother of Jesus and not the son of Zebedee. Of course, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive in and of themselves, but the calling of this James makes it clear that we are not referring to James, brother of the lord. The advantage of this explanation is that it has Matthew following Mark’s story, his characterizations, and also Mark’s motives for adding these elements of the story in the first place

That’s going to have to stand for now. I’m open to suggestions. And further stories may provide further clues as to why Matthew did this. I think the one suggested is the most likely..

5 Et cum venissent discipuli trans fretum, obliti sunt panes accipere.

6 Iesus autem dixit illis: “Intuemini et cavete a fermento pharisaeorum et sadducaeorum ”.

7 At illi cogitabant inter se dicentes: “Panes non accepimus!”.

8 Sciens autem Iesus dixit: “Quid cogitatis inter vos, modicae fidei, quia panes non habetis?

9 Nondum intellegitis neque recordamini quinque panum quinque milium hominum, et quot cophinos sumpsistis?

10 Neque septem panum quattuor milium hominum, et quot sportas sumpsistis?

11 πῶς οὐ νοεῖτε ὅτι οὐ περὶ ἄρτων εἶπον ὑμῖν; προσέχετε δὲ ἀπὸ τῆς ζύμης τῶν Φαρισαίων καὶ Σαδδουκαίων.

12 τότε συνῆκαν ὅτι οὐκ εἶπεν προσέχειν ἀπὸ τῆς ζύμης τῶν ἄρτων ἀλλὰ ἀπὸ τῆς διδαχῆς τῶν Φαρισαίων καὶΣαδδουκαίων.

How is it you do not understand that not about bread do I speak to you? But that you beware from the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. (12) Then understood that he did not speak about the yeast of the loaves, but from the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees. 

Finally! He got through their thick noggins! Now the book by Boyarin that I’m reading, The Jewish Gospels, has a really interesting take on the Pharisees. But I’m going to save that for a special topic, because it also touches on whether Jesus abrogated the dietary laws.

In the meantime, is it any wonder why disciples like these did not bear more fruit? Why they did not succeed in converting more Jews to the teaching of Jesus?

11 Quomodo non intellegitis quia non de panibus dixi vobis? Sed cavete a fermento pharisaeorum et sadducaeorum ”.

12 Tunc intellexerunt quia non dixerit cavendum a fermento panum sed a doctrina pharisaeorum et sadducaeorum.

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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 September 6, 2015, in Chapter 16, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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