Matthew Chapter 16:21-28
This will (finally) conclude Chapter 16. It wasn’t that long, but it sure took some time to get through. I had to re-write large portions of it more than once, since the topics became fairly intricate, much more so that I had originally anticipated.
21 Ἀπὸ τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς δεικνύειν τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ ὅτι δεῖ αὐτὸν εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα ἀπελθεῖν καὶ πολλὰ παθεῖν ἀπὸ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων καὶ ἀρχιερέων καὶ γραμματέων καὶ ἀποκτανθῆναι καὶ τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ ἐγερθῆναι.
Going out of there, Jesus pointed out to his disciples that he must to Jerusalem go away to, and much to suffer from the elders and the high priests and scribes and he was to be killed and on the third day he was to be raised.
I’ve discussed the idea of ex-post facto prophecies several times, so I won’t go into that at the moment. The point here is to preempt the rebuke of Peter by demonstrating that Jesus foreknew his death, and that it was all part of the plan, in order to answer the question of why Jesus died. This had to be a very difficult thing for both his followers at the time, and for those who came later. The purpose of this foreknowing is to assure everyone that this was all part of the plan, not only necessary, but a good thing. Oddly, we are not told why; Paul explained the purpose, but so far the neither gospel has done so. We will come back to God’s purpose shortly; for the moment, let us note the significance of Jesus being aware of this; his awareness is a demonstration of his share in the divinity.
Now a brief word on a couple of other points. The “was to be killed” and “was to be raised” are aorist passive infinitives. As such, they are difficult to render fluidly into English. The “was to be” construction is actually fairly literal, since the aorist is a past-tense. Let’s take this opportunity to issue a general caveat: be suspicious of any commentator who makes too big a deal about the verb tense, especially when it’s an aorist. This is a highly used tense in any kind of Greek prose writing. The meaning of it, or the way it gets translated, can be all over the place largely because the Greek sense of verb tense does not match the way English understands verb tense. At its heart, the aorist connotes a completed action, as opposed to some of the perfect tenses which can indicate something taking place over a period of time, but here we see an aorist infinitive used to describe something in the future. This happens to correspond approximately with the way English treats the narrative of past events, but this is not always how Greek handles such situations. In addition, the aorist is probably the most common tense in the NT, with the possible exception of the present tense. All the action described is in the past, of course, so this makes sense. So when someone makes a big deal about an aorist, it really may not be a big deal.
On the other hand, it is a passive. It’s not the “was to be killed” that’s important here, it’s the “was to be raised”. This was discussed in Paul, that Jesus did not do the rising; rather it was God who did the raising. The implication here is bordering on Arianism, that the son is not quite the equal of the father. Were he, Jesus would be perfectly capable of rising; he would not need to be raised. That may seem to be an overly subtle distinction, but it’s actually a very crucial one. This is about who has the power, God or Jesus, and the answer to that is God. So the use here of “was to be raised” this preserves an attitude, indicating that in the earliest days of the movement, Jesus was not the Second Person of the Trinity, co-eternal with the Father. For Paul, Jesus was not the Christ until he was raised from the dead, which to say that Paul did not consider the pre-Resurrection Jesus to be divine. Here we see that attitude sealed in amber, as it were, preserved through Mark and into Matthew. With this in mind, Mark’s ambivalence about Jesus’ identity makes a lot of sense; what’s interesting is that Matthew kept the attitude intact.
21 Exinde coepit Iesus ostendere discipulis suis quia oporteret eum ire Hierosolymam et multa pati a senioribus et principibus sacerdotum et scribis et occidi et tertia die resurgere.
22 καὶ προσλαβόμενος αὐτὸν ὁ Πέτρος ἤρξατο ἐπιτιμᾶν αὐτῷ λέγων, Ιλεώς σοι, κύριε: οὐ μὴ ἔσται σοι τοῦτο.
And taking him aside (lit = to take Jesus to him/Peter, as in to pull Jesus toward him), Peter began to accuse him, saying, “Propitiation to you, Lord. May this not be to you”.
First, the word << Ιλεώς >> is not in Liddell & Scott in this form. As such, it’s a “free” word that can mean anything we want it to. It appears to be related to the word for “propitiate”, so that is how I have translated it. Interestingly, three of my cribs render it as “be it far from you”, or something similar. This is interesting because that is what the Latin says below: “absit”, which means, “be away from”. What this tells me is that the KJV and a couple of other translation groups did not know what to make of the Greek word; seeking guidance, they fell back on the Vulgate, likely in hopes that St Jerome would have a better sense for the Greek than they did. It’s a reasonable conclusion, and I have done this myself; it’s the main reason that I include the Latin, and why I use the Vulgate specifically. The problem with relying on the Latin is that it means we’re translating St Jerome, and not Matthew.
As for the actual content, there really isn’t much that needs to be said. Again, it’s pretty obviously a set-up and so it doesn’t need to be taken too seriously. We’ll take a look back at this in the next comment.
22 Et assumens eum Petrus coepit increpare illum dicens: “Absit a te, Domine; non erit tibi hoc”.
23 ὁ δὲ στραφεὶς εἶπεν τῷ Πέτρῳ, Υπαγε ὀπίσω μου, Σατανᾶ: σκάνδαλον εἶ ἐμοῦ, ὅτι οὐ φρονεῖς τὰ τοῦ θεοῦ ἀλλὰ τὰ τῶν ἀνθρώπων.
He, turning, said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me, that you do not think of the things of God, but of the things of man”.
This is the payoff to the set-up in the previous line. Of course Peter does not want to hear Jesus say that he is going to die, and sooner rather than later. And the idea that Jesus did die was no doubt perplexing to the disciples, and to a lot of those who heard about the story of Jesus. It’s a reasonable question: if Jesus were divine, the Christ, why did he die? And so in these two verses Peter gets to indulge us in that entirely human bit of curiosity. And of course, this leaves the way open for Jesus to set us all straight.
The answer given is neither very comforting nor helpful, summed up in the idea that we miserable humans cannot possibly understand the divine purpose. In short, it’s the answer is more or less God’s response to Job: where were you when I set the foundations of the universe? It’s the perfect answer, really. The Lord works in mysterious ways, the Will of God is inscrutable, etc. And even the attempt to understand, or to expect that we should understand, is the work of the Adversary. So what do you do? Submit. Truly, there is nothing specifically Jewish, or pagan, or Christian about this attitude of submission; in fact, it’s as old as religion itself. The theocracies of the ancient Near East, or the god-kings of Egypt, even the patriarchs of the HS, all took for granted that utter submission to the will of God/the gods was the underlying principle of human existence.
With that as a background, we really ought to note that this attitude is actually fairly uncommon in both Matthew and Mark We have established that this passage was a later addition to the gospels, that it does not date to Jesus. When that is coupled with the relative paucity situations in which Jesus demands submission to the will of God, it seems safe to infer that this message of submission was simply was not an attitude that Jesus expressed very often. This just wasn’t part of Jesus’ message. And that, I think, is extremely significant because I believe this indicates that we are justified to see this as a fundamental change in tone, in direction, in the understanding of the way the human and the divine related to each other.
This says, I think, a great deal about Jesus’ attitudes, his intention, his message. I think it indicates a fundamental change in what the terms “religion” or “religious” actually mean. Up to this point, the proper role of the human is to grovel before the divine, and religion and religious practice were the methods used to regulate the level and proper procedure for this groveling. Alexander the Great understood this when he forced his generals to perform the Asian rite of proskynesis, something that the generals found deeply disturbing as it indicated that Alexander had taken a very different opinion of himself; that is, that Alexander believed that his relation to his companions had changed at a very fundamental level. After all, Achilles had demanded deferential treatment, but he had not required his companions to grovel before his divinity.
The temptation here is to see Jesus as thinking of himself more in the terms of Achilles as opposed to Alexander. That, however, does not take into account that Jesus did not consider himself to be divine. Of course Jesus did not expect the level of worship and deference that Alexander expected even of his inner circle, because Jesus saw himself as human. Granted, whether he saw himself as the Anointed is a separate question, one that is not impacted by his self-conception. The Anointed was most often thought of as human in the minds of most Jews, despite Boyarin’s arguments to the contrary. But there is another dynamic, perhaps a different dynamic that is occurring here. That this attitude of utter submission crops up so infrequently is our clue to what is transpiring, especially since this attitude was a later addition used to silence those who questioned why Jesus died. Getting behind–to use Jesus’ phrase– this later addition, what we see is a Jesus who is much less concerned with regulating the way humans interact with the divine, and much more focused on how humans relate to each other.
To understand what I’m describing, the attitude described in the Lord’s Prayer–the Our Father–provides insight into this. The idea of the primary god of a pantheon as the All-Father was not new. What is new is the relationship implied. We need to be clear that the traditional family held that the father was the lord and master; indeed, the Roman paterfamilias, literally held the power of life and death over the members of that family, at least in theory. In practice this power had begun to soften, but the Pater Noster took this a step further. In that prayer the father is less the distant judge and lawgiver, and more of the nurturing parent. This attitude is also enforced in passages like Matthew 7:10, in which Jesus asks what father would give a snake to a son asking for bread, and then tells us that the father in the heavens is even more kind, more willing to be generous and helpful. It is reinforced even further by the several times Jesus spoke kindly and well of children. So the true novelty of the words of Matthew, in my opinion, is the way this relationship with God affects our relationship with other people.
The Stoics were the first to conceive the idea of the universal brotherhood. The problem with this aspect of Stoicism is that it often came close to the attitude of “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand”. At its root, Stoicism was more of an intellectual exercise than it was a code of love and acceptance of our fellow humans. Jesus’ message, and his intention took the idea of being siblings with all other persons much more literally and much more seriously. It’s odd that it took an overt command to submit to the will of God to see just how absent this message is from the rest of the gospel. Like the shadows in Rembrandt, the sudden intrusion of the older style of religious relationship throws the rest of the message of Jesus–or perhaps more appropriately, of Matthew–into sharper definition. The result is a new understanding of religious relationships, resulting in a new religion.
23 Qui conversus dixit Petro: “ Vade post me, Satana! Scandalum es mihi, quia non sapis ea, quae Dei sunt, sed ea, quae hominum!”.
24 Τότε ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ, Εἴ τις θέλει ὀπίσω μου ἐλθεῖν, ἀπαρνησάσθω ἑαυτὸν καὶ ἀράτω τὸν σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀκολουθείτω μοι.]
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If you wish to come behind me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”.
Once again, this was in Mark. I didn’t believe that Jesus ever actually said this then, and I still don’t believe it here. This, of course, is supposed to be a prophecy. This whole section is meant to convince us that Jesus certainly knew not only that he was going to die but that he would in fact be executed by crucifixion. More, Jesus accepted all of this because this was the plan. The resulting inference is that there was no need to be concerned that he had died, and horribly.
The problem is that it’s really obviously after-the-fact. Naturally I have to say that from the historian’s viewpoint; accepting that Jesus was divine and foreknew his fate removes us from history and puts us into theology. If one believes that Jesus did foreknow his death because he was divine, then this is not an argument appropriate to this context.
24 Tunc Iesus dixit discipulis suis: “ Si quis vult post me venire, abneget semetipsum et tollat crucem suam et sequatur me.
25 ὃς γὰρ ἐὰν θέλῃ τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ σῶσαι ἀπολέσει αὐτήν: ὃς δ’ ἂν ἀπολέσῃτὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ εὑρήσει αὐτήν.
26 τί γὰρ ὠφεληθήσεται ἄνθρωπος ἐὰν τὸν κόσμον ὅλον κερδήσῃ τὴν δὲ ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ζημιωθῇ; ἢ τί δώσει ἄνθρωπος ἀντάλλαγμα τῆς ψυχῆς αὐτοῦ;
“For if one might wish to save his life, he will lose it. If one should lose one’s life because of me, he will find it. For what shall it profit a person if the entire world he should gain, but his life should be lost. (26) Or what will be given to a person in exchange for his life?
The problem with this passage is how to translate “psyche”. The Latin says “anima”, which is the root of both “animal” and “animate”; it’s that which animates the animal. This is regularly translated as “soul”. But there is a real problem with that. My four crib translations all render “psyche” in verse 25 as “life”, and then switch to “soul” for the two occurrences in verse 26. The distinction between life and soul has an enormous impact on the meaning of the passage. And I understand why the latter two are rendered as “soul”. This fits our understanding of eternal life, salvation, etc. very nicely. But that’s the problem: it fits our notions of what this passage means. The question is, is that what Matthew (or Mark) meant by this? (And this is more or less verbatim from Mark).
Here is the link to the corresponding passage in Mark. I’m providing the link because I discussed why I think that, in Mark, all four of the uses of psyche should be rendered as “life”
We have discussed that the word “to save”, as in “save one’s psyche” generally means to save a life, in the physical sense, as in, the lifeguard saved the life of the careless swimmer. And let’s face it, gaining the world but losing one’s soul–as we use and understand the term–has more of a poetic resonance than gaining the world, but dying in the process. We more or less understand this passage in terms of gaining power, only to become corrupted by the power, thereby losing ourselves, losing who we are; which is to say, we lose our soul. As a kid, this passage from Matthew was on a series of signs set along the state highway. What shall it / Profit a Man / To gain the World / But lose his Soul? Even at ten or so, I remember understanding this passage in the sense of “power corrupts”. Thank my Catholic upbringing for that.
But how did the evangelists mean this? That’s really what we’re after here. How much influence had Greek philosophy had on Mark, and after him Matthew? In time Greek philosophy–in particular Plato– would have an enormous impact on Christian thought; Christian theology would become re-cast in a Platonic mold, taking over Plato’s idea of a disembodied, immortal soul that was corrupted–or at least tainted–by its entrapment in a gross physical body. But at the time this was written circa 70 CE, that recasting was still a century or two in the future. What does it mean here?
Honestly, it’s almost impossible for a modern Christian not to read this as “lose one’s soul”, with “soul” cast in all its metaphysical and theological implications. Just as honestly, I simply cannot believe that this is how it was understood by the audience of either Mark or Matthew. This is one of those moments where the reason struggles to maintain what one knows is the rational meaning, even though all of our emotional equipment is screaming something else. It’s like stepping onto the glass floor of the CN Tower in Toronto, a thousand feet above the ground. On the one hand, you know it’s safe, but your reptilian brain is saying “no way, baby”. I wish I could provide some real insight into how this would have been understood, but I don’t think I can. I suspect it means more than “gain the world, but lose our life” based on the repetition of “psyche” all three times. There are alternative words that could have been used in either instances to get across a distinction between the ways we are understanding the words. At the very least, the repetition of the word three times has to indicate that we cannot understand the last two uses as “soul” in anything like what became the orthodox understanding of the word.
25 Qui enim voluerit animam suam salvam facere, perdet eam; qui autem perdiderit animam suam propter me, inveniet eam.
26 Quid enim prodest homini, si mundum universum lucretur, animae vero suae detrimentum patiatur? Aut quam dabit homo commutationem pro anima sua?
27 μέλλει γὰρ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἔρχεσθαι ἐν τῇ δόξῃ τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτοῦ μετὰ τῶν ἀγγέλων αὐτοῦ, καὶ τότε ἀποδώσει ἑκάστῳ κατὰ τὴν πρᾶξιν αὐτοῦ.
28 ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι εἰσίν τινες τῶν ὧδε ἑστώτων οἵτινες οὐ μὴ γεύσωνται θανάτου ἕως ἂν ἴδωσιν τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐρχόμενον ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ αὐτοῦ.
(27) For the Son of Man is destined to come in the glory of his father with his angels, and then he will give to each according to his works.
(28) Amen I say to you, that there are some of those standing who will not taste death until they see the son of man coming into his kingdom.”
Now, is it me, or is this a bit of a non-sequitur? We go from gain world/lose life to the son of man coming. How do those relate? I’m not sure they do. Sometimes it feels like Matthew has all these things, quotes, stories, etc. on index cards, and that the cards are not necessarily related, but he puts them into order as best he can. Now, of course, we can ascribe this random order to Q, but both of these passages are in Mark, too. This occurs to me: is this the reason why losing one’s life would be a bad thing? Because then one wouldn’t be alive to see the coming of the Son of Man? Recall the passage in 1 Thessalonians in which Paul addressed this very question, assuring his audience that those who were alive would have no precedence over those who had died in the faith. The challenge is to decide whether this passage is connected in any way with 1 Thessalonians. If so, then the sequence here does make sense, or may possibly make sense.
Regardless, what strikes me as most significant is that Jesus talks about the coming of the Son of Man; not the return of the Son of Man. This makes it very easy to interpret this as Jesus speaking about someone else. In fact, that is the plain-sense, or common sense, the most straightforward way to read this, that Jesus is speaking about someone else. That is, he is not the Son of Man. Now, let’s suppose that Boyarin is correct in his interpretation that the Son of Man was seen in Jewish tradition as a divine figure. If this is correct, then Jesus almost has to be speaking of someone else here, of the one who was yet to come, as John’s disciples put it. Again, this demonstrates the unsettled circumstances that existed when Mark wrote; the narrative was still in flux, and there was still ambiguity regarding Jesus’ divinity and/or the divinity of the Son of Man. This, I would argue, is a big part of the reason that Matthew wrote: to lay this uncertainty to rest once for all. This helps explain all the foretelling going on. Of course, we then have to ask ourselves why Matthew didn’t simply change the verb here. A standard response would be “editorial fatigue”, that he was copying chunks of Mark without any significant changes. It is possible that the wrote this out without quite grasping the implications of “coming” vs. “returning”, that he glossed over the word without seeing the need to change it. Or perhaps he thought it was perfectly obvious that Jesus was speaking about himself. He saw it that way because he was inclined to see it that way, or took for granted that this is what was meant. Matthew may have wanted to lay uncertainty about Jesus’ identity to rest, but that’s not to say he saw this passage as problematic in any way.
Another thing to note regarding the Son of Man is that he will come in his father’s glory rather than his own. Here we have another instance of the distinction between the Son of Man and God. This shoots a bit of a hole in Boyarin’s thesis about the divine Son of Man. (Actually, the biggest problem with Boyarin’s thesis is his assumption that there was a single understanding of the concept, of the term ‘son of man’.) This reference to the father’s glory is another holdover from Mark; Matthew simply repeats and retains the idea. Is this more editorial fatigue? Or did Matthew not see this as a problem? In this case, the former makes more sense, I think, than the latter.
Regarding “editorial fatigue”, I think it necessary to stop and consider how Matthew was operating, what his process for writing was. Did he have a text of Mark in front of him, which he copied, perhaps changing the order, but copying largely verbatim, then adding sections where he had an alternate source–possibly Q, possibly something else? I ask because it seems that “editorial fatigue” really only works if we assume that Matthew wrote a single draft, without going back to re-read, revise, and re-write. That seems unlikely. So if Matthew had to see this as problematic, and it wasn’t editorial fatigue, then what?
The only third option that I can see at the moment is that Mark had attained something approaching canonical status, which would have made changing the words, the tone, the content very difficult. The problem with this thesis is that Mark was not the first choice of gospels of the later Church. In fact, there are some who have questioned why Mark survived at all, an question especially pertinent question if you accept the existence of Q which subsequently did not survive. The rationale for this is that it wasn’t necessary since it had been subsumed into Matthew and Luke, but the same could be said for Mark. Given this, I don’t think the canonical status of Mark is a solution.
So if it’s not editorial fatigue, and it’s not the exalted status of Mark, we’re back to Matthew not seeing this as a problem. Yes, I said that editorial fatigue seemed the more likely explanation, but a bit of examination shows that not to be true. Yes, this is a residual from Mark; as such it helps explain subsequent history. The Arian heresy held that Jesus was the son of God, but the two were not co-eternal, nor were they consubstantial. Jesus was subordinate to God the Father. The Arian heresy was the strongest challenge to orthodoxy. The Visigothic Kingdom of Spain, and several German tribes were wholly Arian. If one reads things like The History of the Franks (title of the Penguin edition) by Gregory of Tours, and many modern histories of heresy, Arianism is often portrayed as self-evidently ridiculous, or logically nonsensical. But it was the retention of pieces of Mark’s earlier ambivalence, like the one here, that made Arianism as powerful a threat as it was. I believe this was left unchanged by Matthew because he did not see the problem it presented. Later generations would see the problem, and exploit it.
Another very interesting point here is that the coming of the son of man will also be the Day of Judgement. This, I think, is the first truly apocalyptic pronouncement we’ve encountered in Matthew. Having said that, I just realized that I’ve bundled the coming of the son, judgement, and the end of the world into a single thought concept. I have done this because this is how we think of all these themes, and this bundling of themes is due to the Book of Revelations where all these events are tied together. Was this necessarily the case for Jesus and his disciples? Would that answer be different for Matthew’s audiences? I don’t know this with any certainty. I would probably have a better idea if I were more familiar with things like 4 Ezra, and other Jewish apocalyptic thought. I have the impression–as yet unconfirmed by actual research–that these ideas were becoming melded into a unitary concept.
That does leave, however, the part that each will be judged according to his deeds. At the very least, this seems to contradict any idea of Predestination, or any judgement based on faith alone. Whether Paul actually intended either of those concepts to be the foundations of salvation is, in my opinion, very far from settled. Sola fides was the whole basis of Luther’s split with Rome, and Predestination was the basis of Calvin’s split from both Rome and Luther. The Church of Rome never conceded either point. I will, however, state with some conviction that the idea of being judged based on one’s actions had entered Judaic thinking. Josephus tells us that the Pharisees believed in some sort of eternal life for the just. And this idea was , to some degree, part of Greek thought. Rhadamanthys was the judge of the dead outside the gates of Hades. What does a judge use to judge, if not our actions? But here we get a definitive statement of this as a principle. That is a concrete step forward. Really though, this vision of being judged by our deeds in the afterlife is only the extension of the criminal justice system into the next life. The Romans were lawyers and engineers, and the two talents are related. It was more or less inevitable that this idea would be carried through to the afterlife.
This leaves the final verse, that some standing about would not taste death before the coming of the son of man. This has been called a serious embarrassment for the later Church, or even the earliest Church. Still, when Matthew wrote, it was still possible that some who had been children or young teens at the time of Jesus could still be alive. This is harder to accept when we get to Luke, who also retains this. We have seen that in the earliest letters of Paul, he was expecting the coming at any time, but by the time of 1 Corinthians, the expectation had softened somewhat. As such, it’s not hard to see this attitude carrying through to the time of Mark. It gets harder with Matthew, and all-but impossible by the time of Luke. And yet it remains. Has this moved into the realm of allegory by the time Matthew wrote? Was it not expected quite so literally? Or so soon? This was a problem for the early church, but it was largely circumvented by considering it as figurative speech. What else could they do?
27 Filius enim hominis venturus est in gloria Patris sui cum angelis suis, et tunc reddet unicuique secundum opus eius.
28 Amen dico vobis: Sunt quidam de hic stantibus, qui non gustabunt mortem, donec videant Filium hominis venientem in regno suo ”.
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