Matthew Chapter 17:21-27

Here we have another of those “short” sections. Hopefully, this will actually be fairly short. It’s the conclusion of Chapter 17.

21 Συστρεφομένων

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 ”.

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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 18, 2015, in Chapter 17, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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