Addendum: Summary Matthew Chapter 15

Having just come across something extraordinary in my reading, it seemed necessary to add this piece to the summary of Chapter 15. By coincidence, I ran across this right after finishing the section relevant to this discovery.

As mentioned, I’m reading Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels. In this book, Boyarin makes the argument that the [divine + human] components of the Christ/Messiah belief that we find in the NT regarding Jesus had actually been put together by the Jews as well, and perhaps this complex was in place before Jesus began to teach. In other words, he’s suggesting that the followers of Jesus took over, rather than invented, the idea of the divinely human Christ. He bases this conclusion on his reading of the Similitudes of 1 Enoch and the text of 4 Ezra. These are apocryphal texts, written around the time of Jesus by Jews, but they are not considered to be part of the canon of either the Hebrew or the Christian Scriptures. The key text that inspired both of these works is the Book of Daniel, particularly Chapter 7, with its description of the Ancient of Days and “one like a son of man”. He reads this to mean that the Son of Man was actually a divine figure in Jewish thought, not at all the human anointed one to be humanly descended from the human David.

It’s an interesting thesis, and it has some merit, even if it has some drawbacks. Overall, I don’t necessarily disagree with him. Daniel is a late work, dating to the period of Seleucid rule in Israel/Palestine/Judea. That is, it was written after the career of Alexander, who was purported to be a semi-divine royal figure. As such, he provides a really good paradigm for a semi-, or divine royal figure who could restore the empire of David by driving the heathen from the sacred land of Israel and Judah. Boyarin insists that the so-called High Christology, in which Jesus was seen as divine, was also a Jewish idea, or was as much a Jewish idea as it was a pagan idea as is usually thought. Boyarin may well be correct to argue that the idea of a divine Son of Man had entered into Jewish thought prior to Jesus’ life and career, but the point remains that the origin of this new concept was probably still Greek. Boyarin talks about a much earlier bifurcation between El and YHWH; this is an intriguing thought, that there was a latent binitarianism (as he calls it) in which there was not one God, but two. And ancient mythology is replete with such twinnings: El and Marduk and then Assur, Chronos and Zeus, etc. In these myths a younger god overthrows and supersedes an older one. Such is how Boyarin reads Daniel 7: the Son of Man is to be seen as superseding–if not necessarily overthrowing–the Ancient of Days.

It’s all very fascinating, but it really doesn’t tell us anything new about Jesus, his followers, and how he came to be perceived, understood, and described by the proto- and then Christian assemblies. It merely pushes the identification of the divine human back a century or two. The idea that the “Son of Man” is divine, however, is relevant, and that will be discussed next time that title is encountered.

But that’s not the purpose of this addendum.

Rather, it has to do with the first story we found in Chapter 15. This is where Jesus seemingly abrogates the Jewish dietary laws by claiming that nothing that goes into a person defiles that person. Now technically, Boyarin is discussing this trope as found in Mark, but that is completely irrelevant. Matthew follows Mark explicitly, and it’s the same information.

As with his position on the Son of Man, Boyarin has a well considered, ably argued position on whether Jesus did, in fact, suggest a break with Jewish law. More, as a scholar of the HS, he has a very deep understanding of the background, of the milieu in which Jesus lived. He understands what being Jewish at the time was probably like. The result is an incredibly nuanced, but apparently very solid explanation of what happened in Mark 7 & Matthew 15. According to Boyarin, the Pharisees represented something of a new movement in Judaism. They had started taking the laws of purity to ever-greater lengths. In the process, they had come adrift from what the Torah actually said, substituting actual Torah for the customs of the elders. Hence Jesus’ condemnation that they had forgotten the laws of God, and now followed the laws of men. IOW, the Pharisees were innovators, insisting on a level of ritual purity not found in Torah. They were educated, and primarily urban. Jesus, OTOH, not the radical innovator; rather he was a conservative from rural Galilee, who was fighting to preserve Torah against the new-fangled innovations of the Pharisees. That is, far from being the one breaking the law, Jesus is arguing to retain it against the new rules like washing of hands.

That sort of turns the argument on its head, doesn’t it?

In addition, Boyarin says that Jesus was making a distinction between unclean and impure. Pigs are unclean, in every circumstance. There are no conditions that would warrant eating pig aside from, say, danger of starvation and such extreme conditions. However, an animal that is clean–such as a cow or sheep–can become impure, defiled by the way it’s handled, or by mixing it with milk products. Jesus and the Pharisees were not debating about clean vs. unclean; they were arguing about conditions that made clean food impure. The Pharisees had begun a programme in which the conditions for impurity expanded. One way a clean animal can be made impure is contact with human excreta, or other bodily fluids. This is part of what is behind Jesus’ pronouncement about “it is what comes out” of the person that defiles that person. Yes, there was a metaphorical element as well, but Jesus also meant this as a purely practical injunction.

Now, I am not in the least qualified to judge this argument on its merits. I’m scarcely able to do the argument justice in condensation and paraphrase. It sounds good, it appears sound, but outward appearance can be deceiving.

The real point of this is that, as with the Son of Man, we have a possible explanation that contravenes about 2,000 years worth of Christian interpretation. More, as far as I can tell, Boyarin’s argument is novel; I don’t know the bibliography, I cannot judge his sources, but he is writing as if this is his thesis, rather than something that’s been out there for any length of time. As such, I always want to stop and ask: What? Two thousand years later, and now someone figures this out? But then I stop and think, Well, I’m suggesting that Matthew began life as a pagan, rather than a Jew. That’s not exactly part of mainstream interpretation, either. Of course, it may be that both Boyarin’s interpretation and my hypothesis have been suggested before, but they were not taken seriously by the scholarly community, so they withered on the vine without producing any seeds that could sprout.

Aside from that, what Boyarin does is to demonstrate how fragile so many of our ideas and understandings are. We think we know what something means, but that’s only because we’ve stopped–or never started–questioning first assumptions. We’ve accepted that matters are settled, and gone our merry way. Like Wile E Coyote, we’ve never stopped to look down to see whether we’re on solid ground, or if we’re actually walking on thin air. We haven’t done this because it’s never occurred to anyone that we should question the writings qua writings. We have accepted that they form an integrated whole, a unitary whole; sure, we can tinker around the edges on grace or transubstantiation or predestination, but the basic message needs no explanation because it’s true. Make that True. This is the attitude of people of faith who come at these problems. And I would include Bart Ehrman in this camp. Yes, he is now agnostic, but his basic views were formulated as a person of faith, and I don’t think he’s quite overcome that. Most NT scholars come from a background of Divinity. This is the mindset that simply assumed the HS story of David and the unified kingdom and the course of history as set out in Joshua and Samuel and Kings was accurate in general outline. This attitude carried through until the last twenty years.

And so we come to our understanding of Mark 7. Boyarin claims that the standard interpretation of this text is that Jesus did indeed abrogate the dietary laws. I cannot vouch for this personally, being too unfamiliar with the literature. The result, of this lack of questioning, or lack of background in Judaic studies is that:

“…according to the traditional interpretation and virtually all modern scholarly ones, in [Mark 7] Jesus declares a major aspect of Torah’s laws, the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher), no longer valid, thus representing a major rupture with the beliefs and practices of virtually all other Jews, pharisaic or not.” [The Jewish Gospels, pg. 107]

He is stating that the “representatives of what are arguably the three most central and important scholarly biblical commentary series in the United States” agree on this and almost nothing else” (emphasis mine). They agree that, in Mark 7, Jesus makes a serious–to the point of fatal–break with Jewish tradition by declaring the dietary laws null and void. IOW, all serious schools of NT study interpret Mark 7–or Matthew 15–to mean that Jesus purposefully and consciously broke with his Jewish background. One could argue that this could very well be the founding moment of Christianity, when it broke decisively with its Jewish background. But we need to ask ourselves what the basis is for this general consensus on Mark 7. Have scholars actually examined the assumptions on which this modern interpretation rests?

I tend to suspect not.

Why not? We discussed this in the commentary on the chapter. I have pointed it out at least in two other instances. In his own words, a full two decades (give or take) before Mark wrote his Chapter 7, Paul told us that he and James had an argument on this very topic. In Acts, written perhaps two decades after Mark wrote his Chapter 7, Peter has a dream telling him that all animals are edible. IOW, this issue was still being contended decades after the fact. All of which means that the likelihood that Jesus made any decisive break with Jewish dietary laws extremely unlikely. In fact, the probability of Jesus making such a pronouncement approaches zero. That is to say, the events of Mark Chapter 7, or Matthew Chapter 15 did not happen.

So what does all of this mean? Several things. The first is that too much of the scholarship of the NT–or the Bible as a whole–is not based on firm principles of historical research. In the NT, this problem is compounded by scholars who start with Mark, and not with Paul. For all his erudition, and all of his knowledge of the Judaic context of Jesus, Boyarin falls completely into this trap. He jumps right in to Mark, the earliest gospel, without ever stopping to consider that he should start with the earliest texts, to see what the (proto-)Christian context was for Mark. But Boyarin is hardly alone. Most all of the research I’ve read on the quest for the historical Jesus, or the arguments for Q, approach their subject as if Mark was the beginning of it all. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Paul predates Mark by decades, but Paul doesn’t talk about the historical Jesus–he barely mentions him. Instead, he focuses his attention on the Risen Christ. So, when questing for the Questing Beast, er, the historical Jesus, too many scholars more or less ignore historical records that are decades closer to the actual events. They prefer to follow documents that have already begun to report the legend and not the history. As someone trained in history, I’m just kind of surprised at this behavior. It just seems bizarre, not to mention flat wrong because it simply warps the evidence too much.

So far, this has been a fairly straightforward critique of the failure to use proper historical method. But let’s change gears and direction and introduce a clever bit on my part. To do this, we return to Boyarin’s hypothesis about what Mark says in Chapter 7. In the course of setting forth his argument, Boyarin mentions something that I had not heard suggested ever before, that Mark was not Jewish. I found this surprising, but he quickly squelches this possibility by presenting a strong case to the contrary by suggesting that Mark is making a very subtle distinction, finessing the discussion to a nuanced correction of the practices of the Pharisees, while not actually disturbing the dietary laws. In Boyarin’s opinion, this shows a grasp of the topic that would probably have been outside the capability of a non-Jew. Boyarin can stop there. He is only concerned with whether Mark’s Jesus does, or does not, abrogate the dietary laws as they existed in the First Century. Once he has demonstrated that Jesus has not (as he is convinced he has done), he drops the topic and moves on. Fine. But we need to take this a step further. We need to ask why Mark felt the need to present this very subtle argument in support of the dietary laws.

Why indeed?

Part of the question must rest on whether we assume that Mark knew about the Pauline corpus. On general principles, this seems unlikely, but certainly not impossible. Regardless, by the time Mark wrote, there were assemblies of pagan converts that were decades old. These assemblies, founded perhaps by Paul and Paul’s acolytes–such as Titus the Greek–would have been breaking the dietary laws for most–if not all–of their existence. And yet the author of Acts still feels the need to reinforce the right to abrogate them by reporting Peter’s dream abolishing unclean animals. Just as Peter’s dream demonstrates that Jesus had not made a pronouncement on this, the need to reinforce that it was acceptable to eat pork shows that there were still those who resisted this practice. If they existed in the 90s, when Luke/Acts was written, they likely existed in the 70s, when Mark was written.  So here’s the clever bit: was Mark 7 written as an attempt to compromise between the two practices that were mutually contradictory? Did he come up with this subtle method to explain, if not fully reconcile, the two traditions?

I think this needs to be considered. For two thousand years, former pagans have read Mark 7 as a way of approving the eating of pork, etc. Former pagans likely were not overly concerned with the differences between the law of Torah and the innovations the Pharisees were attempting to introduce, or to make standard. So pagans could go about their way, understanding Mark 7 to mean they were justified in their non-adherence to the Law. Former Jews, OTOH, like James, brother of the Lord, could take heart that this was not what Jesus actually said. (Yes, James was ten years dead when Mark wrote, but he still serves as a great example for the point.) Yes, this is clever on my part. No, this isn’t proven. And yes, this cannot be proven. But it should, at the very least, be considered, and discussed. There’s a lot more going on here than has been understood for too long. The idea that the NT told a unified story has held the field for too long, and cut off too many avenues of debate. We need to stop thinking in those terms and coming to appreciate the layers and the subtleties buried–and not always deeply–in the text. In short, we need to read the text as a text, and not as a Pronouncement.



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 22, 2015, in Chapter 15, Historical Jesus, mark's gospel, Matthew's Gospel, Special topic, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thomas Kazen writes in his book “Jesus and Purity Halakhah” about Mark 7. It is definitely worth checking out.

  2. Sounds good. Thanks for the recommendation. This is all stuff to which I’m still a relative stranger. Any direction is appreciated.

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