Matthew Chapter 17:10-20

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 ”.

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About James, brother of Jesus

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

Posted on November 14, 2015, in Chapter 17, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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