Summary Matthew Chapter 17

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.






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 28, 2015, in Chapter 17, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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