Summary Matthew Chapter 16

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.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on November 1, 2015, in Chapter 16, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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