Monthly Archives: November 2015
All in all, Chapter 17 was largely a recapitulation of themes and stories that were in Mark. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are enough additions and subtractions that we can get some valuable insight into when and where and how Matthew’s purpose and perspective is different from that of Mark. Once we have determined that, we can ask why these changes occurred. What changed?
The first part of the chapter contains the Transfiguration story. Overall, Matthew’s story is slightly shorter; interestingly, Luke’s story is the longest, and significantly so. The difference between Mark and Matthew comes to a few details that we touched on. Mark describes the way Jesus’ garments glowed in human terms; they were impossible to attain, but the reference is to the fulling of the cloth to make it white. In Matthew, Jesus’ garments are “white as light” and Jesus’ face shone like the sun. The terms of description are no longer human; Jesus has transcended humanity and entered into the divine. It occurs to me now I that I may have failed to catch the possible significance of light during the commentary; the concept of light was very important for dualistic religions. It represented the principle of Good. And Platonic philosophyis implicitly dualistic, with a distinction between good spirit–light–and bad flesh–dark. So is Matthew once again drawing on his pagan background and implying Jesus’ connection to the principle of Good by saying that Jesus’ garments were white as light?
Or was he making a really obvious simile?
In this instance, it’s most likely the latter. Or is it?
Because at the climax of the Transfiguration, Jesus is covered by a cloud in Mark; here he is covered by a shining cloud. So we again have the reference to light. Because in the passage where Jesus’ clothes are white as light, his face shone like the sun. So, pagan references?
This might be more probable if there weren’t the passage in Exodus in which Moses’ face shone after his communication with YHWH. So is this a reference to Moses?
Or, once again, is Matthew simply using a fairly obvious simile? I still suspect none of this really refers back to Matthew’s pagan background. All of this is to imply that Matthew would tend to draw on images and iconography that was familiar to him, that he was used to, that was at his fingertips when he was sitting and writing, not that he was dropping covert clues about being a pagan. It’s an American calling a traitor a “Benedict Arnold” where a European might use the term “Quisling”. Matthew, I believe, does leave unconscious clues pointing to his pagan background throughout the text. I’m just not sure that this is one of those places.
So the implication of the differences between Mark and Matthew in the Transfiguration story is fairly straightforward. Matthew changed some of the details mainly to make the divinity of Jesus more apparent. The differences are not large, but they are, I believe, telling. They tell us that Matthew’s attitude about Jesus was more exalted than that of Mark. There is less ambiguity about Jesus’ identity.
There are some additional changes in detail in the telling of the immediate aftermath of the Transfiguration. The only one of consequence comes during the discussion of Elijah. In both stories, everyone understands that Elijah has to come before the Messiah. In Matthew’s version, the disciples understand that, this time around, John had played the role of Elijah. Sufficient emphasis was not given to this during the commentary. Yes, we discussed that the implication was that the disciples were not simply the dullards that Mark had described. Instead, they are more perceptive, they understand implications, they get it to a degree they hadn’t in Mark. And these are valid points. Matthew’s disciples, overall, are more keen in their understanding than the group in Mark. But there is another element to the Elijah = John identity. What’s really important is how this reinforces what I’ve been saying about the way the role of the Baptist grew over time. That is, far from being embarrassed by the connexion, the later followers played it up, made John’s role more prominent, and increased the importance of John’s role. This is exactly the opposite of what should have happened had the followers of Jesus truly been embarrassed by the way John seemed to be Jesus’ mentor.
Both Mark and Matthew introduced John with the quote from Isaiah about preparing the way of the Lord. Both Mark and Matthew cite Malich 4:5, which tells us Elijah must come before the day of the Lord to set things right. But only Matthew equates Elijah with the Baptist. This equation makes John more prominent than he was in Mark. We have noted how Josephus devotes more time to the story of John than to the story of Jesus, indicating that Josephus thought that John was more important, or that John’s story was more interesting and compelling. Either one is entirely flattering to Jesus and his followers, which in turn may indicate why they were interested in appealing to John’s followers. And so this equation by Matthew actually raises John’s significance; he has attained the status of Elijah, one of the two figures to appear in the Transfiguration. And by bolstering John, the equation bolstered Jesus as well. True to form, Matthew raises both Jesus and John, but the clever aspect of Matthew’s treatment is that, while elevating John, he simultaneously makes John decidedly subservient to Jesus.
At this point we probably should ask why this part of the story was omitted by Mark. We have two choices: that Mark didn’t think of this, or that the connexion had not yet been made, or that Mark knew of/thought of the connexion and deliberately suppressed it. If it’s the first, this is another fantastic example of the growth of legend, as in the Arthur legend. The king himself is elevated (first, by being named a king rather than a war-leader), and those around him are elevated and often flat-out invented. If Mark chose to suppress, we then have to ask why? Was it because he wanted the disciples to be thought of as dullards? (Why he would go so far to leave that impress is a separate question…) My first impulse is to believe the first possibility: that the equation of John and Elijah had not been made. That is the easy way out, because it has no real ramifications. But given the way Matthew puts this, presents this, the context in which he puts it, I’m tempted to understand this in terms of Mark deliberately excising the disciples making the connexion. But that would assume that Matthew had access to a different source in which the disciples made the connexion. So, the likelihood is that either Matthew, or someone after Mark at least, was the one to make the equation explicit. IOW, this is a case of the growing legend.
There are other possible explanations, of course. But the either/or here takes it down to minimal essentials, and sort of gets at the roots, if not all the possible branches.
Next comes the story of the boy with a demon. The differences with Mark are clear and easily interpreted. Basically, this is one story in which Mark discusses what I call magical practices. Primarily, in Mark this concerns the question of the disciples on why they could not drive out the demon. Mark attributes it to lack of knowledge: this kind can only be exorcised by prayer. For Matthew, it’s a lack of faith. All that is required is faith the size of a mustard seed and one can move mountains. Of course, the implication is that the disciples lack even this much faith. This is akin to Peter’s attempt to walk on water; in both cases, the disciples and Peter can do what they try if they only believe they can because of the wonders of God. Here, I think, we can clearly see the development of the story of Jesus. In Mark, he’s a wonder-worker, with an arsenal of knowledge about how to handle situations and effect cures or exorcisms; in Matthew, it’s about Jesus’ connexion to the limitless power of God, enough to move mountains if we only believe. This is an enormous step on the journey from wonder-worker to Second Person of the Trinity.
Finally, the last story is that of the fish and the Temple tax. As noted, it’s unique to Matthew. The two key elements, IMO, to the story are the reaffirmation of the connexion to Judaism, and the wondrous prediction of catching a fish with a coin in its mouth to pay the tax. The connexion to Judaism is represented by the payment of the tax; in Luke, this story will become “render unto Caesar”. As such, this story links to the question of Matthew’s religious provenance. Matthew has traditionally been considered the most “Jewish” of the evangelists, the one that has the keenest understanding of the workings of Judaism as practiced in the First Century. In my mind, I used to characterize the four of them as Mark the Journalist, Luke the Novelist, John the Theologian, and Matthew the Rabbi. This was based on what I had read about the evangelists from secondary sources. Overall, so far I have not come across much that would disabuse me of my interpretations of Mark and Matthew; I’ll judge Luke and John when I get there.
As such, my contention that Matthew wasn’t a Jew, but a pagan, is a fairly radical departure from standard academic orthodoxy. I won’t claim to be the first one in 2,000 years to make the claim, but it’s not something I’ve ever seen in my (admittedly limited) reading of the academic sources. In fact, I have not come across anything to make me suspect that such a contention about Matthew exists. Even when unstated, the existence of a given argument or position will leave a gravitational field that can be felt, even if the cause of the field is invisible. Matthew’s Jewish origin is so taken for granted that no one bothers to mention it much of the time; this, in turn, implies the non-existence of a gravitational field left by the argument that he wasn’t. The logic of arguments has to run both backwards and forwards; if it only goes in one direction, it’s not sound logic. It’s the case of Mark suppressing the equation of John and Elijah; that hypothesis really only worked in one direction, so it seemed safe to discount it.
In the very near future I need to go back over my commentary to pick out all of the clues that I’ve found that point to Matthew’s pagan background. So far, this is a working hypothesis. The various premises need to be put together to see if, indeed, they constitute an argument. At this point, I’m not certain they do, but time will tell whether I need to recant. If it becomes necessary, so be it. At this point, suffice it to say that I’ve seen nothing that makes me seriously doubt his pagan background. Even this story, where Matthew attempts to reaffirm the ties to Judaism do not provide much evidence contrary to my thesis. I’ve mentioned numerous times that people in the ancient world were impressed not by novelty, but by an ancient pedigree. As such, Matthew’s reaching back into the history of Jewish practice to re-establish, or reaffirm that connexion makes a lot of sense whether Matthew was a Jew or was a pagan. Recall the teachings of Paul, reiterated more wanly in Mark, that some Jewish practices need not be followed; the dietary laws are the best example. Given the existence of these teachings in the time preceding Matthew, it seems safe to infer that the followers of Jesus had drifted noticeably from their Jewish roots. And if a lot of new converts were pagans rather than Jews, this drift would have been more pronounced. Matthew here, it seems, attempts to counteract that drift, whether as a Jew concerned that the Jesus followers were becoming too far separated from their roots, or as a pagan who wanted the ties to the ancient traditions.
When trying to make a decision about which is more likely to have been Matthew’s motivation, it may help to stop and consider where Matthew falls in the timeline of developing Christianity. He wrote, probably, in the mid-80s, fully fifty years after Jesus’ death, thirty years after Paul, maybe fifteen years after the destruction of Jerusalem, and maybe a dozen years after Mark. From what we gather from Paul’s eyewitness account, the center of the new movement in the 50s was Jerusalem, where James, brother of Jesus was regarded as the central and key figure of the movement. If Josephus is to be believed, and there’s no good reason to doubt him, James died in the early 60s. Then, less than a decade later, Jerusalem was destroyed. It seems very likely that the combination of these two factors seriously undermined the position of Jerusalem as the focal point of the movement. Later tradition implies that it was somewhere in this period that the focus began to shift to Rome. Of course, we need to bear in mind that there were also significant centers also came into being in places like Alexandria and Antioch and, eventually, Jerusalem again. But by the early Second Century, you have a tradition of the bishops of Rome aspiring to a role of primacy.
All of this is by way of thinking about the composition of the followers of Jesus. With Jerusalem removed, most of the focus on converts probably started to shift away from Jews. Think about it: we have, essentially, a diaspora situation. We also have a number of communities founded by Paul in pagan cities like Galatia, Thessalonika, Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome–although he personally did not found that assembly, and may never have visited it. These are the reasons I believe that, by the time Matthew wrote, the tipping point had already been passed, when the Jesus movement was becoming more pagan than Jewish. To be honest, I’m not sure what the orthodox position on this is; my sense is that most biblical scholars sort of assume that the movement was more Jewish than pagan until sometime into the Second Century, just as it’s assumed that the evangelist who wrote the gospel of John was still Jewish. I highly doubt both of these ideas. Of the four evangelists, I would suspect that the only one who was raised as a Jew was Mark.
The point of this digression is that Matthew comes along after the tipping point has been passed. Now we can ask if this tells us anything about the likelihood of Matthew being a Jew or a pagan. Later tradition is, in my opinion, just about worthless. The leaders of the movement had no interest in what we would consider historical accuracy. A “tradition”, at root, is just a story that tells listeners what the one telling the story wants them to know. The bishops of Rome, to some greater or lesser degree, were able to usurp the position of primacy, but it took centuries for this to happen. Into the time of Charlemagne, the Patriarch of Constantinople had a legitimate claim to be the true leader of the Catholic Church, to being superior in position to the bishop of Rome.
So the answer, I think, is that none of this really provides any evidence to increase the likelihood of Matthew being a Jew or a pagan. When I launched into it, my preconceived notion was that it weighed in favor of his being a pagan, but I see that’s not the case. My thought was that a pagan would have more incentive to go back to the Jewish roots as a way of authenticating the origins of Jesus after a period in which the Jewish roots were being trampled under by the weight of pagan converts. One could argue that this makes it more likely that Matthew was, indeed, Jewish, and so was afraid to see that heritage lost. But this is the same author (presumably) who introduced a number of pagan motifs, so Matthew may have been conscious of balancing out the two traditions. In this way he set the tone, and the precedent for much of what was to follow during the Patristic Age.
Here we have another of those “short” sections. Hopefully, this will actually be fairly short. It’s the conclusion of Chapter 17.
22 δὲ αὐτῶν ἐν τῇ Γαλιλαίᾳ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Μέλλει ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου παραδίδοσθαι εἰς χεῖρας ἀνθρώπων,
23 καὶ ἀποκτενοῦσιν αὐτόν, καὶ τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ ἐγερθήσεται. καὶ ἐλυπήθησαν σφόδρα.
They having returned (22) to Galilee, Jesus said to them, “It is destined that the son of man will be handed over to the hands of men, (23) and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised”. And they were made to be sorrowing exceedingly.
Just to start, in a lot of versions Verse 21 is blank. Here it is shown with a single word. This is a matter for textual criticism; as such, it’s not really something I can discuss. Textual criticism and reconstruction is an arena for specialists; as such, it’s beyond my poor understanding.
Second, let’s consider the purported return to Galilee. Is this accurate? True historically? Is it even meaningful? We have no way of verifying whether this represents an historical fact. Given that it leads to a prophecy that was likely after the fact, we should immediately be put on guard. But either way, that it’s unverfiable means we shouldn’t put much stock in it, and it especially means we should probably not use this as the basis for any further inferences. In the final analysis, it’s a minor point, except to serve as a reminder not to take throwaway details like this too seriously.
That brings us to the actual content. We just came across a similar pronouncement to this effect in the last chapter. And that is what should interest us here. We’ve discussed how improbable it is that Jesus ever said these words; the question is why Matthew repeats it so soon after the previous prophecy. After all, we’re only just a bit past half-way, so there is time to space these out a little more. Is that the point? By repeating the prophecies in close proximity in the text, is Matthew attempting to drive the point home more effectively? Say it once, maybe it sticks. Say it twice, and it probably will. Or does this have more to do with the way Matthew was editing Mark’s material? That seems just as likely. Whichever, it’s not something that carries a lot of weight, but I think it should make us a little more suspicious of claims that Matthew’s editing was “masterful”.
(21) 22 Conversantibus autem eis in Galilaea, dixit illis Iesus: “ Filius hominis tradendus est in manus hominum,
23 et occident eum, et tertio die resurget ”. Et contristati sunt vehementer.
24 Ἐλθόντων δὲ αὐτῶν εἰς Καφαρναοὺμ προσῆλθον οἱ τὰ δίδραχμα λαμβάνοντες τῷ Πέτρῳ καὶ εἶπαν, Ὁ διδάσκαλος ὑμῶν οὐ τελεῖ [τὰ] δίδραχμα;
25 λέγει, Ναί. καὶ ἐλθόντα εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν προέφθασεν αὐτὸν ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγων, Τί σοι δοκεῖ, Σίμων; οἱ βασιλεῖς τῆς γῆς ἀπὸ τίνων λαμβάνουσιν τέλη ἢ κῆνσον; ἀπὸ τῶν υἱῶν αὐτῶν ἢ ἀπὸ τῶν ἀλλοτρίων;
They having come to Caphernaum, they came those receiving the didrachma (two-drachma piece) to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the two drachmas?” (25) He said, “Yes”. And having come to his house Jesus anticipated him, saying, “What does it seem to you, Simon? Do the kings of the earth from someone receive the duty or the tribute? From the sons of them or from strangers?”
This second verse here is sort of tricky grammatically. The phrase <<ἀπὸ τίνων>> would most often mean “from someone” as I have translated it here. However, in reading the last question, it becomes clear that it’s meant to be “from whom”, which is how it’s generally rendered. Now, my discomfort with this is due in no small amount to the lack of nuanced understanding that I often bring to translation. I’m simply not all that comfortable with the language, especially with regard to NT Greek, that sometimes the subtleties escape me. I fully concede that such might be the case here. Regardless, this is not a standard Classical usage. In fact the unabridged Liddell & Scott, which focuses primarily on Classical usage, does not really register “from whom” as a viable usage. The abridged L&S, however, does recognize this as a translation. The shorter L&S, unlike the bigger version, does tend to focus more on Christian usages, especially NT usages. So once again, we are confronted with a passage in which the Greek has strayed somewhat from the way pagan authors used the words. This is not exactly a consensus translation, but we are in the antechambers of such a rendering. Honestly, the Classical usage here does not entirely make sense, but the NT usage does. So maybe it’s time to swallow my misgivings and proceed.
The content has a couple of interesting points. Once again, Jesus has a house. This time, I think, there is no real disputing this. When Mark mentioned Jesus’ house, there was often a certain ambiguity in the reference; it seemed like it was Jesus’ house, but it was never stated flatly the way it is here. So what does this mean? That Matthew had a source unavailable to Mark, testifying that Jesus, indeed, owned a house? It’s possible, but unlikely. The probability is considerably higher that Matthew read what Mark said and took it as given, and so states it as given. Jesus had a house, point of fact. Now this is a great way to see how the legend grows. In the first telling, there is a bit of uncertainty; in the second, it’s taken as proven. It happened here about a small thing with the house; it happened even more so with Jesus’ identity. In Mark, Jesus as the Christ was implied, but maybe not definite; in Matthew, it’s taken as a given.
And the bit about the didrachma, I suspect, will come to a climax in the next couple of verses.
24 Et cum venissent Capharnaum, accesserunt, qui didrachma accipiebant, ad Petrum et dixerunt: “ Magister vester non solvit didrachma? ”.
25 Ait: “Etiam”. Et cum intrasset domum, praevenit eum Iesus dicens: “Quid tibi videtur, Simon? Reges terrae a quibus accipiunt tributum vel censum? A filiis suis an ab alienis?”.
26 εἰπόντος δέ, Ἀπὸ τῶν ἀλλοτρίων, ἔφη αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Ἄρα γε ἐλεύθεροί εἰσιν οἱ υἱοί.
27 ἵνα δὲ μὴ σκανδαλίσωμεν αὐτούς, πορευθεὶς εἰς θάλασσαν βάλε ἄγκιστρον καὶ τὸν ἀναβάντα πρῶτον ἰχθὺν ἆρον, καὶ ἀνοίξας τὸ στόμα αὐτοῦ εὑρήσεις στατῆρα: ἐκεῖνον λαβὼν δὸς αὐτοῖς ἀντὶ ἐμοῦ καὶ σοῦ.
But responding, “From strangers.” Jesus said to him, “In this way the sons are free. (27) In order that we do not stumble on them, go to the sea throw the net and hauling in the first catch of fish, and opening you will find in its mouth a stater. Taking this give to them for me and you.”
OK, this is just kind of silly. It sounds like a fairy tale, and perhaps that is why it only occurs in Matthew. Luke wanted nothing to do with it. But it demonstrates Jesus’ divinity. Herodotus tells a similar story about a king who throws a ring into the sea because it’s the most precious thing he owns. By doing this, he is trying to avert the fate that awaits him because he is too powerful. But, a peasant catches a splendid fish and presents it to the king. Well, the ring is in the fish’s stomach, so the ring came back to the king and whatever the fate he was trying to avoid struck him anyway. The hand of god/God will not be turned.
And I believe this was the temple tax, rather than a Roman tax. That is significant because this isn’t “render unto Caesar”, but an affirmation of the Jewishness of Jesus. Recall that Mark seemed to distance himself from the Jews; but a generation later, when the scars of the Jewish Revolt had healed somewhat, Matthew wished to attach himself and the movement more firmly to the ancient heritage of the Jews, so here we have Matthew doing exactly that. In a way, it’s similar to the way that the Baptist was c0-opted by Jesus’ followers, the better to show potential converts that theirs was not a novelty, or novel, but something stretching back for centuries, just as Homer did. Now, does Matthew’s attempt to tie Jesus and his followers more firmly to the Jewish heritage make it more or less likely that Matthew was a pagan, rather than a Jew? Or does it change the likelihood at all? My sense is that this story provides another clue that Matthew was a pagan. Why? Because the story is very deliberately placed. It’s not in Mark, it’s not in Luke. It’s unique to Matthew. So why add this? To confirm Jesus’ attachment to Judaism. Why is that important? To preserve the lengthy pedigree so important to the ancients. Were he born into the Jewish tradition, would Matthew have felt such a need to affirm that Jesus was, indeed, a Jew? I don’t think so. There is almost the sense here that Matthew is trying to convince himself as well as his readers of the great age of the tradition. By going out of his way to tell a story like this, I think that Matthew is displaying a level of need, a need to grab onto the antiquity provided by Judaism.
Writing this, it’s immediately apparent that this whole contention is almost a complete conjecture. It is not at all difficult to see this in an opposite light, or indeed as simply irrelevant to the question of Matthew’s background. But I think the small little clues, like this one, are all weighing on the side of Matthew having a pagan background. As always, feel free to disagree, but be prepared to explain why you do. The tradition that Matthew was a Jew is pretty much useless as historical evidence. The early fathers had a very powerful motivation to present Matthew as a Jew, so whatever they said fifty or a hundred years later is pure hearsay, and is more likely than not to be wishful thinking. Again, when I see how political figures in my lifetime have morphed into something that they simply were not, I realize just how unreliable the tradition of a generation later actually is. We live in an age when documentary evidence is overabundant, and yet we still find the common conceptions of what happened a generation ago to be wildly inaccurate. How much worse in the First Century, when there was so very little evidence? So I have almost no faith in anything the traditions of the early church tell us. Eusebios is pretty much unreliable.
26 Cum autem ille dixisset: “ Ab alienis ”, dixit illi Iesus: “ Ergo liberi sunt filii.
27 Ut autem non scandalizemus eos, vade ad mare et mitte hamum; et eum piscem, qui primus ascenderit, tolle; et, aperto ore, eius invenies staterem. Illum sumens, da eis pro me et te ”.
This section is the follow-up, or conclusion of the Transfiguration story. It may be fruitful to read this while keeping in mind the idea that this may have constituted the beginning of the story that held Jesus to be the Christ.
10 καὶ ἐπηρώτησαν αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ λέγοντες, Τί οὖν οἱ γραμματεῖς λέγουσιν ὅτι Ἠλίαν δεῖ ἐλθεῖν πρῶτον;
And they asked him the disciples saying, “So what do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”
Apparently, the bit about Elijah coming first, before the Messiah, refers to a prophecy of Malachi. Apparently the idea is that Elijah would return and usher the way for the Messiah. I do recall reading about this when we did this passage in Mark. Malachi is a later, lesser prophet. I’ve noted several times that there have been a number of citations of these later prophets. A moment’s reflection should tell us that this is not surprising. These later prophets were written in the last centuries BCE; as such, they are close to the time of Jesus, and they both speak to a similar secular environment of Judea being subjugated to a pagan foreign power. So the “way out” of this would have had appeal to those living under the Seleucids as well as those living under the Romans.
10 Et interrogaverunt eum discipuli dicentes: “ Quid ergo scribae dicunt quod Eliam oporteat primum venire? ”.
11 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Ἠλίας μὲν ἔρχεται καὶ ἀποκαταστήσει πάντα:
12 λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν ὅτι Ἠλίας ἤδη ἦλθεν, καὶ οὐκ ἐπέγνωσαν αὐτὸν ἀλλὰ ἐποίησαν ἐν αὐτῷ ὅσα ἠθέλησαν: οὕτως καὶ ὁυἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου μέλλει πάσχειν ὑπ’ αὐτῶν.
He, answering, said “Elijah is to come and restore everything. (12) But I say to you that Elijah has come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him as they wished. In this way the son of man is destined to suffer from all”.
The thought world of First Century Judaism was waiting for Elijah to come as the herald of the Messiah. Jesus is telling them that this has already happened.
11 At ille respondens ait: “ Elias quidem venturus est et restituet omnia.
12 Dico autem vobis quia Elias iam venit, et non cognoverunt eum, sed fecerunt in eo, quaecumque voluerunt; sic et Filius hominis passurus est ab eis ”.
13 τότε συνῆκαν οἱ μαθηταὶ ὅτι περὶ Ἰωάννου τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς.
Then the disciples understood that about John the Dunker he spoke to them.
The first thing to note is the distinction between Mark and Matthew here. Mark does not include this line about the disciples understanding. The disciples have become a lot more perceptive in the interim between the two gospels. We are justified to ask why this would happen. It would seem to be part of the process of creating legend out of history. In Mark, the disciples are mere fallible–so very fallible–mortals. Here, they are starting to ascend the higher reaches, thereby becoming larger than life.
This connexion is very interesting. Is this why the relationship to John grew over time? Now, the idea of John-as-herald was already in Mark, but now it’s being expanded as he is equated with none other than Elijah. And not only did the association with John grow, the followers of Jesus were finding a way to co-opt and further domesticate him, by insisting on his role of Jesus’ herald. The interesting thing here is that someone came across the Malachi quote and understood that it could be pressed into service in this way, figuratively, in which the Baptist could stand in for Elijah no less. Which makes one recall the road to Emmaus on Easter, when the traveler laid out to the disciples (unnamed; usually a bad sign for historical authenticity) all the passages of the HS that referred to Jesus as the Messiah. This passage even puts Elijah into a subservient position as one who prepares the way.
Then we also have Jesus once again stressing that he will be ill-used by…whom? The same people who did whatever they wished to Elijah. Except Elijah was not killed by the crowd, so the part about “doing what they want” actually refers to John. Perhaps this is how the disciples knew?
13 Tunc intellexerunt discipuli quia de Ioanne Baptista dixisset eis.
14 Καὶ ἐλθόντων πρὸς τὸν ὄχλον προσῆλθεν αὐτῷ ἄνθρωπος γονυπετῶν αὐτὸν
15 καὶ λέγων, Κύριε, ἐλέησόν μου τὸν υἱόν, ὅτι σεληνιάζεται καὶ κακῶς πάσχει: πολλάκις γὰρ πίπτει εἰς τὸ πῦρ καὶ πολλάκις εἰς τὸ ὕδωρ.
And coming toward the crowd a man came to him and knelt (before) him, (15) and saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son, that is moon-struck and suffers badly. For often he falls into the fire and often into the water.”
First, what I translated as “moon-struck” uses the root for “moon”. Of course, the word for “moon” in Latin is “luna”, which has become our “lunatic”. The idea carried through from Greek, into Latin, and ended up in English (and perhaps other languages?). Second, the man says “Lord have mercy,” which transliterates as “kyrie eleison”, which of course is the prayer “Kyrie” which is said in Catholic and Episcopalian masses. It’s the only part of the Latin mass that was in Greek, and it persists, if in English form in Episcopalian mass.
14 Et cum venissent ad turbam, accessit ad eum homo genibus provolutus ante eum
15 et dicens: “ Domine, miserere filii mei, quia lunaticus est et male patitur; nam saepe cadit in ignem et crebro in aquam.
16 καὶ προσήνεγκα αὐτὸν τοῖς μαθηταῖς σου, καὶ οὐκ ἠδυνήθησαν αὐτὸν θεραπεῦσαι.
17 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν, “ω γενεὰ ἄπιστος καὶ διεστραμμένη, ἕως πότε μεθ’ ὑμῶν ἔσομαι; ἕως πότε ἀνέξομαι ὑμῶν; φέρετέ μοι αὐτὸν ὧδε.
And I brought him (the lad) towards his disciples and they were not able to heal him. (17) Responding, Jesus said, “O faithless and having been perverted generation, until when with you will I be? Until when do I suffer you? Bring him to me.”
This is very interesting. Who is Jesus calling faithless and perverted? “This generation”, but on first reading it seems like this is directed at the disciples. After all, they were unable to heal the boy. Now, it’s also possible that the faithlessness of those around the disciples and the boy was what prevented them healing the boy. This is what happened in Mark 6 when Jesus was unable to perform any significant miracles due to the lack of faith of those in his home town. In all probability, that is how we should understand this passage. But the placement of this here is interesting for a number of reasons.
The problem is that Mark did not include this allusion to a faithless generation in his version of this story. Yes, Mark has Jesus bewailing this faithless and perverted generation several times, but he doesn’t do it here. Rather, Mark has Jesus explaining how to handle this sort of demon, telling the disciples that they can only be exorcised through prayer. This is one of a half-dozen times that Mark talks about, or describes the magical practices of Jesus, the things he does to effect the miracles he performs. One time it was making mud with his saliva; here it was categorizing the demonic species and providing a training session on how to cure “this type”. That being the case, we have to ask why Matthew did include it.
Of course, we have no way of knowing what Matthew’s motivation was. So we have to speculate. As I see it, the most likely explanation is that Matthew was generally going out of his way to downplay the wonder-worker aspect of Jesus. He didn’t want to eliminate the miracles the way Thomas Jefferson did, but he didn’t want them to play quite so prominent a role. At least, that seems a reasonable inference based on the overall presentation. It can be argued and counter-argued, of course, but the position is eminently viable. But the one thing that Matthew consistently does is eliminate all of the descriptions of magical practice that Mark included. In reading the latter, I found these descriptions fascinating, and there are more of them than one realizes until they are aggregated. This story was a great example. So Matthew eliminates this aspect of the story, resorting instead to the “faithless generation” theme that was also prominent in Mark.
Given this, it’s rather pointless, I believe, to ask whether this jibe was directed at the disciples, at the surrounding crowd, or the generation in general. In Matthew’s usage of the theme, it wasn’t actually directed at anyone in particular. It was more of a misdirection, an attempt to change the subject than an expression of genuine angst.
Given this second aspect, and assuming we accept it, Matthew’s treatment of this story provides are really sharp insight into the creation of the message of Jesus. Matthew could not just excise the miracles, the wonders, themselves, but he could alter the way they were presented. Doing this, we get a keen view of how Jesus message was subtly re-worked, re-arranged, changed over time just as the attitudes towards Jesus evolved as the writing of the NT progressed. If you read the NT as a developing document, rather than something that flashed into existence simultaneously, with each piece independent of, but also contingent upon every other piece, this development of ideas becomes remarkably clear. Matthew was not writing with every piece of Paul in mind, let alone John. They were each presenting their own message and not trying to reinforce and consciously complement the others. In fact, subsequent writers were trying to correct previous ones in some situations. This is one of them.
16 Et obtuli eum discipulis tuis, et non potuerunt curare eum ”.
17 Respondens autem Iesus ait: “ O generatio incredula et perversa, quousque ero vobiscum? Usquequo patiar vos? Afferte huc illum ad me ”.
18 καὶ ἐπετίμησεν αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, καὶ ἐξῆλθεν ἀπ’ αὐτοῦ τὸ δαιμόνιον: καὶ ἐθεραπεύθη ὁ παῖς ἀπὸ τῆς ὥρας ἐκείνης.
19 Τότε προσελθόντες οἱ μαθηταὶ τῷ Ἰησοῦ κατ’ ἰδίαν εἶπον, Διὰ τί ἡμεῖς οὐκ ἠδυνήθημεν ἐκβαλεῖν αὐτό;
20 ὁ δὲ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Διὰ τὴν ὀλιγοπιστίαν ὑμῶν: ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐὰν ἔχητε πίστιν ὡς κόκκον σινάπεως, ἐρεῖτε τῷ ὄρει τούτῳ, Μετάβα ἔνθεν ἐκεῖ, καὶ μεταβήσεται: καὶ οὐδὲν ἀδυνατήσει ὑμῖν.
And Jesus rebuked it, and it came out of him the demon. And the boy was healed from that hour. (19) Them the disciples coming to Jesus in private said, “On account of what were we not able to cast him out” (20) And Jesus said to them, “On account of the little faith of yours. Amen I say to you, if you may have the faith as a mustard seed, you will say to that mountain, ‘Come here’, and it will come here. And nothing you will be unable to do.”
Well, this sort of seems to contradict what I said earlier about the “faithless generation”, but I stick to my position. It was misdirection. Lack of faith is an acceptable reason for the inability to work a wondrous cure; not knowing your demonic taxonomy is not. I stand by my position because of the invocation of the faithless generation; this is not “oh ye of little faith” as Jesus said to Peter when the latter realized he couldn’t walk on water. This is what Jesus says when the Pharisees want to see a sign from heaven. As such, it’s not entirely appropriate to ascribe this to the disciples, and particularly not in private. Matthew is still trying to change the subject from the demon itself, and to make the conversation about a general lack of faith.
So I stand by what I said in the previous comment. As always, feel free to disagree. But if you do, make sure you have reasons for doing so, that you can explain these reasons, and that these reasons form a coherent explanation.
18 Et increpavit eum Iesus, et exiit ab eo daemonium, et curatus est puer ex illa hora.
19 Tunc accesserunt discipuli ad Iesum secreto et dixerunt: “ Quare nos non potuimus eicere illum? ”.
20 Ille autem dicit illis: “ Propter modicam fidem vestram. Amen quippe dico vobis: Si habueritis fidem sicut
granum sinapis, dicetis monti huic: “Transi hinc illuc!”, et transibit, et nihil impossibile erit vobis ”.
This is the story of the Transfiguration. The narrative follows that of Mark fairly closely, so I don’t think it will be necessary to add too much line-by-line commentary. But I always think these will be shorter than they actually are.
1 Καὶ μεθ’ ἡμέρας ἓξ παραλαμβάνει ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὸν Πέτρον καὶ Ἰάκωβον καὶ Ἰωάννην τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἀναφέρει αὐτοὺς εἰς ὄρος ὑψηλὸν κατ’ ἰδίαν.
And after six days Jesus took Peter and James and John his brother, and carried them up the high mountain by themselves.
This is almost verbatim from Mark.
1 Et post dies sex assumit Iesus Petrum et Iacobum et Ioannem fratrem eius et ducit illos in montem excelsum seorsum.
2 καὶ μετεμορφώθη ἔμπροσθεν αὐτῶν, καὶ ἔλαμψεν τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ ὡς ὁ ἥλιος, τὰ δὲ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο λευκὰὡς τὸ φῶς.
And he was transformed before them, and shone his face like the sun, his clothing became white as light.
This is slightly different from Mark, who does not have Jesus’ face becoming like the sun. Mark spent his description describing Jesus’ clothing as being impossibly white. This added description by Matthew would seem to be an expansion of the myth, or is it just a more graphic description? The other question worth asking is whether this is pagan imagery? It’s probably not necessary to take it as such, but it’s worth noting that this is the only time this simile is used. Even Luke, who is often considered to be a pagan, does not use it. So here again we have something peculiar to Matthew. Of course a detail like this is not significant because just because it’s unusual
2 Et transfiguratus est ante eos; et resplenduit facies eius sicut sol, vestimenta autem eius facta sunt alba sicut lux.
3 καὶ ἰδοὺ ὤφθη αὐτοῖς Μωϋσῆς καὶ Ἠλίας συλλαλοῦντες μετ’ αὐτοῦ.
And he was seen by them speaking together with him with Moses and Elijah.
Pardon the bad English. I was trying to preserve the Greek, but there was no real way to do that, so I had to repeat the “with”. Again, Moses and Elijah, perhaps the two most important figures of the HS, taking that with some latitude. The point is it’s Elijah, and not Isaiah, whom I think a lot of Christians might expect given his prominence in NT citations and thinking.
3 Et ecce apparuit illis Moyses et Elias cum eo loquentes.
4 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Πέτρος εἶπεν τῷ Ἰησοῦ, Κύριε, καλόν ἐστιν ἡμᾶς ὧδε εἶναι: εἰ θέλεις, ποιήσω ὧδε τρεῖς σκηνάς, σοὶ μίαν καὶ Μωϋσεῖ μίαν καὶ Ἠλίᾳ μίαν.
And answering Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will make here three tents, one for you alone, one for Moses alone, and Elijah alone”.
I’ve never been sure how to take this. Is Peter just babbling? It seems like it. Now contrast this with him being the rock upon whom Jesus would build the church. The two images do not quite go together, do they? In fact, this is almost comic relief, just as his attempt to walk on the water was almost comic relief. This seems to provide further evidence that the “rock” passage of the last chapter was interpolated. Here and when he tries to walk on water, Peter is bordering on buffoonish behaviour, and yet we are told that he is the rock on which Jesus will build his church. There seems to be some inconsistency in the portrayal. Or what we’re probably seeing is a layering of the traditions. As time passed, more stories were told, and not all would have portrayed Peter in the same manner. This is the way legends grow. The stories told of Ronald Reagan now, just under two generations after he left the presidency, do not necessarily bear much resemblance to the person who actually sat in the White House. The legend has begun to conflict with itself, to the point of contradiction.
Despite all of this, the significant thing here, I believe, is not the way he is portrayed, but that it is Peter who is speaking and not one of the others. Throughout the gospels, it is Peter with whom Jesus interacts. He is the one who got out of the boat, the rock, the one speaking here, the one who denies him, etc. And it’s always a little surprising to note how little James and John actually say or do, despite their positions of supposed prominence. What this tells me is that, as Paul corroborates, Peter was Jesus’ loyal follower, one who played a leading role in the ministry. James and John are likely later creations. Or, perhaps more accurately, they are like time travelers, individuals who played significant roles after Jesus’ death, and they have been teleported back in time to justify their leading role in the aftermath. And if James and John are retro-projections, I think it’s very safe to say that the other members of the Twelve are as well. I still suspect they were named by James, brother of the Lord, after the latter’s death. Of course, it would be interesting to speculate that the James here named was perhaps the son of Zebedee and Mary.
4 Respondens autem Petrus dixit ad Iesum: “ Domine, bonum est nos hic esse. Si vis, faciam hic tria tabernacula: tibi unum et Moysi unum et Eliae unum ”.
5 ἔτι αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος ἰδοὺ νεφέλη φωτεινὴ ἐπεσκίασεν αὐτούς, καὶ ἰδοὺ φωνὴ ἐκ τῆς νεφέλης λέγουσα, Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν ᾧ εὐδόκησα: ἀκούετε αὐτοῦ.
Upon him speaking, behold, a shining cloud obscured them, and, behold, a voice from the cloud saying, “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him”.
The details are only slightly different from Mark’s version. The “shining” cloud is new, and rather an interesting concept. Meteorologically speaking, there are times when clouds do seem to shine, usually when the sun is beside or behind them, but here the intent is purely poetic, I believe. This was not a standard-issue or garden-variety cloud, dull of hue and brightness, but a luminous cloud, one that shines. The object is to contrast this to “ordinary” clouds, to indicate the divine aspect, one that was numinous as well as luminous.
5 Adhuc eo loquente, ecce nubes lucida obumbravit eos; et ecce vox de nube dicens: “Hic est Filius meus dilectus, in quo mihi bene complacui; ipsum audite”.
6 καὶ ἀκούσαντες οἱ μαθηταὶ ἔπεσαν ἐπὶ πρόσωπον αὐτῶν καὶ ἐφοβήθησαν σφόδρα.
And hearing, the disciples fell upon their faces and they were exceedingly afraid.
I dearly wanted to render this as “sore afraid”, and I did so at first before changing it. The KJV actually does render this as “sore afraid”, but that says more about Stuart-era English than it does the Greek. In the famous passage of Luke, the shepherds actually “feared a great fear”. It’s just that the passage of Luke has been lodged very deeply in the cultural vernacular of the English-speaking world. Hearing Linus repeat it all those years in A Charlie Brown Christmas certainly helped.
6 Et audientes discipuli ceciderunt in faciem suam et timuerunt valde.
7 καὶ προσῆλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ ἁψάμενος αὐτῶν εἶπεν,Ἐγέρθητε καὶ μὴ φοβεῖσθε.
8 ἐπάραντες δὲ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτῶν οὐδένα εἶδον εἰ μὴ αὐτὸν Ἰησοῦν μόνον.
And Jesus came forward and touched them, saying “Get up and fear not”. (8) And raising their eyes the saw no one except Jesus alone.
Normalcy returns, the aperture to the divine is closed. What had happened? Had it happened? Surely, the disciples must have thought something like that.
In the discussion of Mark, I toyed with the idea that the Transfiguration may have been the climax of the story at one time. In Mark, it comes sort of at the point where the wonder-worker tale gives way to the Christ tradition, and it seems possible that this was meant to be the turning point, where Jesus true identity is revealed. That is an attractive thesis, but on further consideration it is probably more appealing than it is substantiated. I am not at all sure the thesis can be defended. It’s pretty to think this, but it’s not a sound position. This story does, of course, reveal Jesus’ identity, but I doubt very much that it was ever meant to be a climax. Rather, it’s more like a second baptism story; this is hardly a novel idea, given the repetition of the voice from the heavens declaring Jesus as “my son”, with the tacit understanding that we are hearing the voice of God.
But once we’ve granted that it’s a second baptism, what do we make of this? From a stylistic perspective, from how the stories of the baptism and the transfiguration mirror each other, it’s very easy to see them as brackets, or bookends. It was from thinking on these terms that the idea of the transfiguration as the end of the story occurred to me. And even now, this idea still seems appealing, and I suppose it could be argued if we think in terms of a fairly primitive story. But further reflection leads to another possibility that warrants at least some consideration. Rather than beginning and end, it’s probably more appropriate to think of the transfiguration as a second beginning. Here is where the identity of Jesus is fully revealed. The baptism, with it’s heavenly voice, opens us up to an adopted Jesus; the transfiguration gives us a truly divine Jesus, whose face shines like the sun, and who converses with Moses and Elijah. As such, I would suspect that this is a later addition to the story, one that came after the baptism and the wonder-worker stories. It was designed to elevate Jesus above the role of wonder-worker, and place him more securely in the realm of the gods.
7 Et accessit Iesus et tetigit eos dixitque eis: “Surgite et nolite timere”.
8 Levantes autem oculos suos, neminem viderunt nisi solum Iesum.
9 Καὶ καταβαινόντων αὐτῶν ἐκτοῦ ὄρους ἐνετείλατο αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγων, Μηδενὶ εἴπητε τὸ ὅραμα ἕως οὗ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκ νεκρῶν ἐγερθῇ.
And they coming down from the mountain Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell no one this thing having been seen until the son of man from the dead has been raised.
Once again, this is almost verbatim from Mark, so there’s really not much new to say. This is part of the Messianic secret that Mark perpetuates. We’ve speculated on why; my position is that Mark–or an intervening source–came up with this idea to explain why Jesus was not followed more widely by Jews than he was. Were there assemblies in Galilee? We don’t know of any–to the best of my limited knowledge. Why weren’t there? Or why weren’t there more? Because Jesus kept his identity as the anointed one secret, so only a few people knew about this. But how does this square with the enormous crowds that Mark says followed Jesus? Well, they were only interested in the healing powers Jesus demonstrated. Because if you read Mark with any perspicacity, you will note that it’s the healings that draw the crowds. And there is where Mark joined the two traditions, that of the wonder-worker and that of the Christ.
This story belongs to the latter element, and could be seen as the splashy intro to the Christ tradition in Mark. By retaining Mark’s basic structure, Matthew repeats aspects of Mark–like the messianic secret–even when they don’t exactly make a lot of sense. In the context of Matthew, this secret of Jesus is not terribly appropriate, whereas it’s a key part of Mark. This is yet another indication of why it’s obvious that Mark wrote first: things like the messianic secret only make sense when the idea of Jesus as Messiah wasn’t the prevailing attitude.
9 Et descendentibus illis de monte, praecepit eis Iesus dicens: “Nemini dixeritis visionem, donec Filius hominis a mortuis resurgat”.
While reviewing the chapter in preparation for this review, the striking feature is how short the chapter is, and how easily and quickly I was able to jot down notes for the major action. This being the case, the question becomes why it took so long to complete? And oddly the answer is not based on what was in the chapter, but what was not. The major sticking point was the discovery of elements that were not in the text. What we have not encountered in any significant way in the gospels are a lot of injunctions to “do as you’re told, without asking questions”; nor have we heard the expression of anything like “Thou shalt not…”
Granted, there is the time that Jesus tells us to cut off our hand, or gouge out our eyes if either causes us to sin. And he warns us not to cause the children to stumble, so the gospels are not completely devoid of moral guidance. The difference is that Jesus does not provide a list of actions meant to propitiate God. Consider the disctinction between Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy with their elaborate prescriptions for exactly what we should do and how we should do it. Granted, this is simplifying and overemphasizing this aspect of the HS, but such codes of behaviours to be followed were very normal for ancient religions. Instead, Jesus guides us in how we should act and behave towards each other.
Proto-Christianity was not the only belief system to turn away from rityal prescriptions. The Stoics came up with the idea of a universal sibling-hood sseveral centuries before Jesus lived. But to read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, one is struck by the solitary nature of his world view. His is the way of life of a hermit, albeit one living in the midst–or the top of–society. The book is about putting one’s own life and one’s own outlook in accordance with the universe as a whole. One has duties–especially if one is Roman Emperor as he was–towards the rest of humanity, but there is always a layer of reserve between him and the rest of the world. The goal was to be dispassionate, unaffected by the rest of the world; hence, the term “stoic acceptance”. To some degree this was an inheritance from Plato, and Plato had this affect on much of Graeco-Roman thought. He even had an impact–a large one–on Christian thought. Much of the Mediaeval world only makes sense if you realise that they see the world in an extremely Platonic fashion, that our world is but an imperfect approximation, and that one’s thoughts and outlook should not be concerned with it overmuch; rather, one should always have one’s vision, one’s inner vision especially, since this is the one that truly mattered, focused on the other world, the next world, the perfect world.
More, this transition from the world of prescribed ritual to a world of what is in our hearts, and how we behave towards our fellow was taking place throughout the ancient world. This is part of the working-out of the transition to a guilt culture, in which what mattered was what was in our hearts, not in how we performed specific actions, or in specific circumstances. It should be pointed out that the Romans were well behind much of the rest of their empire in making this transition. The Romans, largely, were very uncomfortable with emotional display. They believed that a man acted in a certain way, that he had dignitas and gravitas, which roughly overlap with what we would call dignity and a solemnity of outlook. It is told of Julius Caesar that, as he fell on the Ides of March, 44 BCE, he took care to arrange his toga so that his legs would be decently covered. This is a man concerned with outward appearance, with the way he is seen by others; this is not a man composing his inner self in preparation for meeting his maker. This is why the Romans were deeply suspicious of all these so-called Eastern Mystery Religions, with their ecstatic rites, or even their displays of what we would call normal emotion. The English were heavily influenced by their reading of Livy, and Victorian decorum was, to some degree, the deliberate attempt to resurrect these Roman attitudes.
That’s probably enough on that. The thing is, Jesus’ command to Peter to sit down and shut up was jarring in its incongruity with the rest of the narrative.
Aside from that, there are probably two real themes of the chapter. The first is about who Jesus is; the second is a series of ex-post facto prophecies in which Jesus warns the disciples of his impeding death. Of course the purpose of the latter is to console not the disciples, but us, the intended audience of the gospels. These prophecies are meant to reassure us that the execution was all part of the plan, and that we can take comfort in knowing that Jesus knew what was going to happen, that he accepted it, and that he understood why it had to be done. Of course the irony is that Christian theology has never really quite been able to explain the why; was it ransom? Or was it a single, all-sufficient sacrifice of propitiation? Yes, it is possible to reconcile the two, but the fit is, at best, uneasy. Since none of the gospels make any real attempt to explain the reasoning, we will put that aside and return to the two themes.
In a very real way the two themes reinforce each other. It can be argued that Jesus is able to make the prophecies because of who he is. At least, we have no trouble conflating all this together: as the divine son of God, the Son of Man partakes of the Father’s omniscience and so can foreknow the future. The problem with this understanding is that it’s not entirely supported by the text. As we pointed out in the commentary, the text very distinctly talks about the coming of the Son of Man in terms where the natural reading of the text is that it refers to a third party, rather than to himself. This inconvenient implication effectively demonstrates the layering involved here. If we break this into constituent parts, we have the predictions of the future which indicate a divine foreknowledge, coupled with an apocalyptic “prediction” of the coming of the Son of Man. This is more a matter of story-telling than actual prediction. Yes, it was taken seriously, by some at least, as the foretelling of the future state in which the current status quo will be overturned; however, the difference is that the “prediction” of Jesus’ death had already happened. The coming of the Son of Man was still in the hazy, non-specific future. As the text is constructed, both here and in Mark, which forms the basis of this text, there is no necessary connection between the two parts. Yes, they have been fitted together very effectively, to the point that the seam between them is scarcely noticible. But it is still there; these two pieces are not an organic whole. Of course, this argument only makes sense if we assume that Jesus was not divine.
This does lead to another implication. If we are to posit the prediction of the coming of the Son of Man as an earlier layer, one must ask how deeply this layer is buried. Does it go back to Jesus? If so, this has implicactions for the content and intention of Jesus’ message. Was he a preacher of apocalypse? If he foretold the coming of the Son of Man, then the answer has to be “yes”. The coming of the Son of Man is necessarily an apocalyptic event, so foretelling this event necessarily makes Jesus a preacher of apocalypse. But then, how does this fit with what was said earlier, that Jesus’ message was meant to describe a new way of interacting with our fellow humans here on earth?
The answer to that, it seems, is in what is meant by “the Kingdom of Heaven/the Heavens”. This has the potential to be a pivotal concept to what Jesus’ message was; as such, it is potentially key to much of this puzzle. THe problem is that we are no doubt foolish to think that there was a single implication, or set of implications, or a single understanding or way of defining this term. It doubtless changed, evolved, acquiring new meanings and implications as it traveled forward in time. In fact, this is sort of like what we “uncovered” in the chapter, where a concept suddenly throws a void into sharp relief. “The Kingdom” (of God, of the sky, of the heavens) is a concept that is so familiar to us that we never notice how vague, how ambiguous it is, or the extent to which it’s not defined, or even described. It simply is, and Christians for the past two millennia have taken it for granted because we have filled in the blanks and defined, described, and determined what this is. And of course, every use in the NT conforms to our post-facto definitions. This is a classic case of buried assumptions. I have noted periodically and most likely infrequently, that the actual or definitive meaning of this concept is very unclear, that it’s left (intentionally?) vague, and that it’s never really obvious what the implication is in any particular instance that the word is used. This is, however, a topic too large for the present circumstances; it deserves a special inquiry.
Now, the topic of the kingdom does segue nicely into the next issue, which is that of Peter being the rock and getting the keys to the kingdom. What do we make of this? To repeat, these two ideas are found in Matthew, and nowhere else. Not even Luke has them. More, Mark does not, and yet the tradition held that Mark was a disciple of Peter. It seems very, very difficult to believe that this was true and that the designation of Peter was not included in Mark’s gospel. Therefore, one of these “facts” is very likely to be false: either Mark was not Peter’s disciple or Jesus did not make this designation. They can both be false, but they cannot both be true, it would seem. Why would Peter’s disciple not include the designation of Peter as the rock of the gathering? From the historian’s point of view, the idea that Peter’s disciple would not include this, but a later evangelist would, is simply incredible. So which is true? Is either of them true? No doubt unsurprisingly, I don’t believe either.
I do not believe that Mark was Peter’s disciple. I believe this because there is no plausible, historically sound explanation for Mark omitting the passage that became the basis for the Petrine Primacy, which is better known as the Papacy. This issue is, I believe, that simple. So the author of the Gospel According To Mark was not the James Mark from Acts. In short, we do not know who the author of Mark’s gospel actually was. The tradition ascribing this gospel to Peter’s disciple is simply wrong, as most of early church tradition is.
By implication, since the earliest gospel Mark neglects to include this passage about Peter being the Rock, it is fairly safe to take the next step and infer that Jesus simply never said this. Rather, the phrase was invented by Matthew, for reasons that are not entirely clear, or it was inserted later by the bishops of Rome. There are serious problems with this assumption, but I think they are less debilitating than the alternative thesis that this is something Jesus actually said.
And note that this passage is not in Luke. As such, ascribing it to some hypothetical (and extremely dubious) document like Q does not work. Now it is certainly possible that Matthew found this in Q and used it, but that Luke found it and didn’t use it. This creates other problems. First and foremost, it strikes at the root of the raison d’etre for assuming Q, to account for the material that is in Matthew and Luke, but not Mark. The second and related problem is then one must have a plausible reason to explain why Luke chose to omit this passage. Or, one has to put forth and defend an argument for the omission that is more compelling than the position that Luke didn’t use this because it wasn’t in Q. That is a simple, straightforward explanation of the facts and their status. And note that it doesn’t require “disproving” Q; one can suggest this and remain agnostic about the existence of Q. As a result, this is a very elegant and compelling position: the passage establishing the Petrine Primacy was not in Q.
This, in turn, means either that Matthew received information on this passage independently of Mark, that Matthew invented this passage himself, or that it is a later interpolation. To assess the first possibility, we can skip over Matthew’s motives for using the passage; that is largely irrelevant. He used it because it was there. Rather, we have to ask just how likely it was that such a source existed. Where did it come from? It may have come from disciples of Peter. After all, they were the ones most likely to be told of this passage, because it was related to them by their teacher. But let us consider the enormous time gap here. The events described ostensibly occurred around 30 CE; Matthew’s gospel was written some sixty years later. This would require an unbroken chain of transmission over this gap that managed to bypass both Paul and Mark. Recall that, in Paul’s description of the status quo in the Jerusalem Assembly, James the brother of the lord was the apparent leader. Peter was important, but he was not the one setting the tone. Recall that Peter was content to live like a Gentile while away from Jerusalem, but he immediately fell back into line and assumed the dietary codes while under James’ watchful eye. In fact, Paul’s description makes it seem that Peter was nervous about James finding out about the dietary lapses. This is not the behaviour we would expect from the acknowledged leader of the assembly. And, had Jesus uttered these words, Peter would have been the acknowledged leader, having been given the mantle by Jesus himself. Yes, there could have been some struggles between the groups, such as those that led to the Sunni/Shia split in Islam; but, were there such struggles, it is clear from Paul that James won, and that there wasn’t much contention about James’ primacy, based largely on Peter’s acquiescence. Given this description of the status quo, it seems very unlikely that Jesus uttered these words.
If not Jesus, then who? There are two possibilities: Matthew–or a source closer to Matthew’s time, or the words were interpolated later. If we consider this second possibility, the primary candidate is an early bishop of Rome.
The first suggestion suffers from the problems of the authentic source. Such a source almost necessarily would have come into existence after Mark wrote. But how likely is this? Up to this point in the development of the Jesus movement, to and through the time when Paul and Mark wrote, we have nothing whatsoever to indicate that any of Jesus’ disciples had any connexion whatsoever with Rome. There is nothing in Paul to indicate that Peter or James or anyone else had ever been to Rome, nor that any of them had any intentions to do so. We do know Paul intended to travel there; whence the origin of the Epistle to the Romans. But we have nothing to indicate that Paul ever made it there. In fact, the tradition of Paul and Peter going to Rome appears for the first time in Acts, written ten years after Matthew wrote. Given this, we have to question whether this tradition took root as early as Matthew. It hadn’t by the time Paul wrote, and it hadn’t by the time Mark wrote, but it had by the time Luke wrote. The “rock” passage is the only indication of Petrine primacy in the interim period; but it doesn’t mention Rome, but Rome is the underlying implication, isn’t it? Of course, many Protestant commentators did not believe so.
Sherlock Holmes’ favourite maxim was that, when you have eliminated the impossible, what you have left is your solution, no matter how improbable. We have, I believe, eliminated most of the serious potential explanations for this tradition being existing pre-Matthew. For the most part, the problems they present seem to be fatal; they seem to preclude them as potential explanations for this passage. What we are left with is that this was interpolated later, by the Bishop of Rome. When commenting on the passage, I was not keen on this explanation, even though it seemed the most likely possibility. Now, having considered it further, I believe this is what is left. No matter how improbable, or even unpleasant, I believe it has to stand as the explanation.
During the commentary, I questioned why, if this is an interpolation, it is only found in Matthew. Why not put it in Luke, or Mark as well. I suspect it is related to the way the gospel of Matthew came to be regarded by the end of the first century. The early church, once something had formed that justifiably could be called that, believed that Matthew’s was the first gospel written. Hence the placement of it first in the NT. Most likely, it seemed that altering Matthew was enough to make the point. Mark was considered a summary of Matthew, so there was no reason to expect it to be complete. Luke and John were recognized as later works; indeed, at the end of the First Century, Luke was very recent, and John was probably nonexistent. Luke was the first to make explicit the connexion to Rome; indeed, it seems worth asking if this were not part of the reason that Luke was written: so that both Peter and Paul could end up in Rome, thereby cementing the bishop of Rome’s primacy. With Luke/Acts in hand, and this passage added to Matthew, the ascendancy of Rome was well on its way.
Again, this is not smoking-gun evidence. Such evidence does not exist. But it is a reasonable reconstruction of events based on the information provided by the texts themselves. This is, I believe, what the texts are telling us if we but listen. Of course, one potential objection is, if this passage was interpolated deliberately, why not go further, and make it even more explicit? That is an excellent question, and one that cannot be answered. Perhaps it was considered best not to overplay one’s hand. By the end of the First Century, the Assembly of Rome was well-established, and it’s location at the political and spiritual centre of the empire had begun to give it a lustre that other episcopal sees lacked. Jerusalem, the natural centre, had been destroyed. Alexandria was an important city, but it lacked any real connexion to any sort of apostolic activity. The same could be said for Antioch, perhaps, the first “Christian” assembly. With Luke/Acts bringing the two major apostles, Peter and Paul, to Rome, and with Jesus calling Peter the rock on which he would build his church, the apostolic connexion was not only forged, but it was impressive. As time would tell, it was enough to ensure the Petrine Primacy for over a thousand years.