Matthew Chapter 18:11-20

Chapter 18 continues. Note that most versions of the NT show Verse 11 as blank. In cases like this, the Greek text I use moves the first word of the next verse back into the “empty” verse. This would matter only if one is quoting, so I will follow the convention and leave Verse 11 as empty, and I will adopt this convention going forward. My apologies for any confusion caused by not doing this earlier.

11/12 Τί ὑμῖν δοκεῖ; ἐὰν γένηταί τινι ἀνθρώπῳ ἑκατὸν πρόβατα καὶ πλανηθῇ ἓν ἐξαὐτῶν, οὐχὶ ἀφήσει τὰ ἐνενήκοντα ἐννέα ἐπὶ τὰ ὄρη καὶ πορευθεὶς ζητεῖ τὸ πλανώμενον;

13 καὶ ἐὰν γένηται εὑρεῖν αὐτό, ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι χαίρει ἐπ’ αὐτῷ μᾶλλον ἢ ἐπὶ τοῖς ἐνενήκοντα ἐννέα τοῖς μὴ πεπλανημένοις.

14 οὕτως οὐκ ἔστιν θέλημα ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ πατρὸς ὑμῶν τοῦ ἐν οὐρανοῖς ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μικρῶν τούτων.

“How does it seem to you? If it happens to a man (having) a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders off, does he not leave the ninety-nine upon the mountain and go out to seek the one having wandered? (13) And he happens to find it, amen I say to you that he will be pleased about it more than upon the ninety-nine that did not wander off. (14) Is it thus the will before our father in the heavens, in order that should perish one of these little ones?”

There seems to be a little bit of what is now charmingly called a mash-up here. In the last section we were discussing the little ones. Then we jump to the lost sheep, and we’re back to the little ones. First, this seems to support my contention that the “little ones” are not, in fact, children. The way they are equated with the lost sheep, I think, demonstrates that these are not children pretty conclusively because the idea of a child as a wandering sinner is not entirely consistent within itself. That Luke separates this from the story of the little ones is the final and conclusive evidence for this, I think.

The lost sheep is part of what would be called Q; it’s not Mark, but it’s in Matthew and Luke. And, to be honest, the fact that this is a bit of a mash-up probably supports the argument for Q; Matthew took separate aphorisms and tried to fit them together into a single narrative, and he failed about as badly as he did in the so-called “masterful” handling of the Sermon on the Mount material. So once again, I’m undermining my argument that Q existed. Or not necessarily. I do not doubt that Matthew had sources that Mark did not have. What I don’t believe is that any of these sources dated back to Jesus, except in a few isolated instances. For the most part, material in the sources that Matthew had and Mark didn’t was material that came about in the period between the two writers. Or, more likely, that the material hadn’t fully diffused when Mark wrote; for the most part, I would suggest this material came about probably sometime after Paul wrote. Or, even further, I would date this material to the period after James, brother of the lord, died. The second thing about the Q hypothesis I don’t believe is that Luke had Q, but hadn’t read Matthew. There were probably things that Luke got that Matthew got and Mark didn’t, but I don’t believe for a moment that Luke wasn’t aware of Matthew when Luke wrote. I suspect Luke was fully aware of Matthew. There are too many passages where the language is verbatim, and it contains things that should not have been in Q if Q was based on sayings of Jesus. The prime example is the story of Jesus’ baptism. 

But to return to the task at hand, what does this passage say? This is a doctrine of forgiveness. And, the thing is, having been brought up in the Christian part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, this passage had always seemed to be a summary of Christian teaching. The problem is, having been spending some time reading about Torah and the HS in general, forgiveness is intrinsic to the Judeo-part as well. In fact, that is the theme of the HS: Israel sins, God forgives. I suppose what is different is the emphasis on the individual, but even this was intrinsic to the HS. In fact, in a book I’m reading called Religion in Human Evolution, the author, Robert Bellah, cites a scholar of the HS named Stephen A Gellar. Professor Gellar’s point is that the revolution in Judaic thought came when the covenant between God and Israel came to be seen as a covenant between God and each Israelite–or Judean, given the timing of this. The upshot of all this is that the thought expressed is not so different from Judaic thinking; the break between Judaism and Christianity in this passage is not nearly so sharp as I had been led to believe. Now, perhaps I’m a bit slow on the uptake on some of this, but that was the lesson the good Dominican nuns of Maple Grove St Michaels imposed upon me.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Judaism and Christianity expressed here is the way the shepherd actively goes out to seek the lost sheep. That is not an analogy that I have encountered in the HS, although I suppose one could argue that all the prophets were just that: shepherds trying to gather in the lost sheep. Perhaps it’s the emphasis on the individual here that may take us further into Christianity; the prophets, after all, were seeking the nation as a whole. But that is a difference in emphasis rather than in meaning or intent. Now here’s the kicker: recall the debate between Paul and James as described in Galatians. The core of the disagreement was the degree to which new converts had to become Jews. James took the Jewish line, Paul took a novel one. My suspicion is that the analogy of the lost sheep may belong to James, not his more famous, (presumably) older brother. My suspicion is that a lot of the more “Jewish” elements of Jesus’ teaching should actually be traced to James.

But that leads to the question of what did Jesus teach? Of course, if he were a wonder-worker, he may not have taught all that much. Except that certain demons can only be exorcised through prayer. That, I believe, does trace to Jesus. Puts sort of a different spin on things, doesn’t it?

Finally, there is the last verse. And this is a very deep, and very difficult problem. Does God intend for any of the little ones–those of small faith–to perish? At first glance, I thought that we were crossing into what is called theodicy: the explanation of the role of God in overtly “evil” things. Except that’s not the intent of this passage at all. Because the little ones are not perishing in the flesh, as it were, but spiritually. They perish by not entering the life, which was discussed a few verses back, when Jesus was advising self-mutilation. So the topic here is spiritual death, the death of what we would call the soul. Now, it bears remembering that Josephus told us that the Pharisees believed that the righteous would experience resurrection of the body. The implication is that not everyone would. So, by failing to enter the life, the little ones would not be experiencing that resurrection into a new life. Again, this seems very Christian, and it is, and maybe the emphasis on this teaching by those who became Christians caused this line of teaching to lose favor among those who remained Jews. Or, Josephus explains that Pharisees believed in this Resurrection, but Sadducees didn’t. Since Paul was a Pharisee, he introduced this teaching into the Jesus movement, and those who did not follow Jesus and remained Jews chose to follow other lines of teaching that did not emphasize the life.

To this day, I’m not entirely sure what the orthodox Jewish teaching is on the afterlife. I have a sense it’s different from what Christians believe, but what that difference is, I cannot say. So I did a quick Google search and found one site that said while an afterlife is a fundamental aspect of Jewish teaching, it’s not really discussed per se in the the Torah does indicate an afterlife. This was inferred by the Pharisees, who were the intellectual forebears of rabbinical Judaism. Essentially, I’m not far off; it’s part of the teaching, but it’s not very explicit. But then, what do we know from what we’ve read so far? Of the books covered to date, 1 Thessalonians 4 is the only text that provides any kind of real description of what will happen. And that is what is to happen when the Lord returns, coming down from the clouds. Truly, much of the geography and iconography of “Heaven” will not be made explicit until the writing of Revelations. That is perhaps another 30 years in the future from the time Matthew wrote. So, while the NT teachings are becoming slightly more explicit in speaking openly of “the life”, it’s all still a very vague concept. I don’t think the details had truly been worked out.

One very important question is whether “the life” and the “kingdom of the heavens/God are actually the same thing. These have been synonymous concepts at least since the Third Century, if not before. But were they the same when put into the mouth of Jesus by the evangelists? Interestingly, there are maybe a dozen or fifteen uses of the word in the Synoptics; it’s not until John that the idea of the life really takes hold, apparently, because he talks about it more than the other three combined, and by a wide margin. But the idea of “eternal life” is already present in Paul, who also uses the phrase “kingdom of God”. Given this, it’s probably safe to conclude that this topic requires investigation beyond what can be done in the context of a comment. More on that at some point.

The other question to ask then, is what hints this might provide on the composition of Jesus’ followers. Does it provide any? Probably not. We know that Paul was preaching to pagans for the most part. He tells us that. And since he uses both “the life/life eternal” and the “kingdom of God fairly frequently, I think we have to conclude that this was a foundation tenet of the earliest teaching about Jesus. Whether it was a teaching of Jesus, however, is entirely another matter.

11) 12 Quid vobis videtur? Si fuerint alicui centum oves, et erraverit una ex eis, nonne relinquet nonaginta novem in montibus et vadit quaerere eam, quae erravit?

13 Et si contigerit ut inveniat eam, amen dico vobis quia gaudebit super eam magis quam super nonaginta novem, quae non erraverunt.

14 Sic non est voluntas ante Patrem vestrum, qui in caelis est, ut pereat unus de pusillis istis.

15 Ἐὰν δὲ ἁμαρτήσῃ [εἰς σὲ] ὁ ἀδελφός σου, ὕπαγε ἔλεγξον αὐτὸν μεταξὺ σοῦ καὶ αὐτοῦ μόνου. ἐάν σου ἀκούσῃ, ἐκέρδησας τὸν ἀδελφόν σου:

16 ἐὰν δὲ μὴ ἀκούσῃ, παράλαβε μετὰ σοῦ ἔτι ἕνα ἢ δύο, ἵνα ἐπὶ στόματος δύο μαρτύρων ἢ τριῶν σταθῇ πᾶν ῥῆμα:

17 ἐὰν δὲ παρακούσῃ αὐτῶν, εἰπὲ τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ: ἐὰν δὲ καὶ τῆς ἐκκλησίας παρακούσῃ, ἔστω σοι ὥσπερ ὁ ἐθνικὸς καὶ ὁ τελώνης.

18 Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὅσα ἐὰν δήσητε ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται δεδεμένα ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ὅσα ἐὰν λύσητε ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται λελυμένα ἐν οὐρανῷ.

19 Πάλιν [ἀμὴν] λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐὰν δύο συμφωνήσωσιν ἐξ ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς περὶ παντὸς πράγματος οὗ ἐὰν αἰτήσωνται, γενήσεται αὐτοῖς παρὰ τοῦ πατρός μου τοῦ ἐν οὐρανοῖς.

20 οὗ γάρ εἰσιν δύο ἢ τρεῖς συνηγμένοι εἰς τὸ ἐμὸν ὄνομα, ἐκεῖ εἰμι ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν.

“But if your brother should sin [against you], go, question him between you and him alone. If he hears (i.e. listens to) you, you have won your brother. (16) If he doesn’t listen to you, take along with you yet one or two, so that upon the mouths of two of witnesses, or three the whole story will be stood. (17) If he should disobey them, tell the assembly. If indeed he should disobey the assembly, let to you be as among the peoples, and the publicans. (18) Amen I say to you, whatever so if you give upon earth shall be given you in heaven, and whatever so you loose upon the earth will be loosed in heaven. (19) Again, [amen] I say to you that if two of you sound together (transliterated = “symphony“;  so >> “speak together”, or “agree”) upon the earth about all matters about which they might inquire, it will be for them by my father in the heavens. (20) For where two or three gather together in my name, there I am in the middle of them”.

The translation of Verse 19 is, to put it mildly, a bit rough; it is, however, pretty much how the Greek works. The idea is that if two agree about something on earth, the father will do what they ask, because where two or three are gathered…

This is very interesting. The last verse, “where two or three are gathered” is one of the most comforting lines in Christianity. The use of it in The Wedding Song by Paul Stukey, of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame, was borderline brilliant. He follows it by “…there is love.” I’ve always found this a beautiful and reassuring sentiment. But that is not what the sentiment is here. This is about the disciples being in control, being the gatekeepers of the kingdom to some extent; to a large extent, in fact. We are all so familiar with the scene in which Peter is the rock, and how he can bind and loose, but I for one am not at all familiar with this passage, in which the disciples as a group are given–or or being told they have the authority, or the power to make arrangements on earth that will come about through the efficacy of the father. But notice that, while the father brings about what the disciples ask, it is “I”, the speaker, who is between the two or three. The implications of this are very impressive.

To begin, assuming we can trust that Matthew put this together deliberately, this would be the first time we’ve come across an identity of the father with Jesus. This is a cornerstone of Trinitarian theology, but the Trinity was not fully developed for two or three hundred years. There is nothing like this in Paul, and perhaps a few oblique allusions in Mark, butt this is easily the most explicit equation so far, which makes it a major step forward theologically.

But to get back to the point about the disciples vs Peter. At first glance, it is very tempting to see this as something of a contradiction of the more famous passage about Peter and the rock.  There (16:17-18), Peter is told he has power to bind and loose on earth and that it shalle be so in heaven. This power is not given to the other disciples, but specifically and solely to Peter. Here, Jesus seems to be speaking to the whole group, no one has been singled out, and he grants the power to bind and loose to all. Indeed, this goes a step further. Here he says that whatever they agree to will be granted by the father in the heavens, and this is the context of the two or three gathered in his name. What to make of this?

First let it be said that there is no inherent contradiction, per se. There absolutely no reason the power to bind and loose that was granted to Peter previously could not now be granted to the group severally. That’s not the problem. The problem is the idea of Petrine primacy. Interestingly, over at Bible Hub all the comment seems to revolve around tying this to what has come immediately before, which is the treatment of those who have transgressed against the disciples. And of course, the connexion back to this is certainly valid. But it seems to be a very narrow reading of this. Part of the issue, of course, is that no Protestant commentator will agree that the Peter = rock passage in any way grants or concedes that Peter–and certainly not his successors, if Peter was ever in Rome, which Matthew Henry doubts–had any claim to primacy based on Jesus’ words. My problem is that I was raised in the Roman Rite made this claim, and in which it was simply taken for granted that this was the intent of the rock passage. As such, it is nearly impossible for me to read 16:18 and not see it as a grant of primacy. It’s a bias that is buried too deep; I don’t believe that primacy was granted intellectually, but I can’t push that meaning from my mind. 

Now, if the Protestant opinion is correct, then there is no real conflict with this passage. But that feels wrong. It feels wrong that the power to bind and loose was given first to Peter alone and then here to the disciples as a group. And that the power to bind and loose was given first to Peter alone seems to be the plain-sense reading of 16:17-18. And even disregarding the intent of Peter = rock, it seems very odd that Jesus would make this grant of power in two different circumstances. Why would he do this? We could come up with a theory that Peter was the first to see Jesus’ true identity, so it was given to him first; then, later, when the other disciples understood the Truth about Jesus, they were given the power here. But there is a lot of supposition and inference in that theory. Or, we could be seeing the merger of two separate traditions regarding the granting of the power to bind and loose.

But given the latter, the  simplest explanation is that the rock passage was inserted later, by the bishops of Rome, to establish their claim to primacy at some point after the tradition came into being that Peter had been the first bishop of Rome. And it would be perfectly credible to believe that the bishops of Rome had started that tradition as well. The passage here has to be considered in the context of the rock passage; the words are too similar to do otherwise. If the words were lifted from here and placed there with the confession of Jesus’ identity, that would make a lot of sense.

I say this bearing in mind the story of the Donation of Constantine. For those unfamiliar with the term, in the 8th (?) Century, the Roman pontiffs caused a document to be forged that stated that the Emperor Constantine had granted temporal power in the West to the bishop of Rome whe the Emperor moved the capital of the empire from Rome to his refounded city of Constantinople. The forgery wasn’t exposed until 15th Century. The point is that the bishops of Rome–and many others, were not above the creation of documentation that would support their claims. It must be said, however, that they would not have seen this as deceit; they would have understood this as revealing something they truly believed to be true. It’s the idea behind all the apocryphal gospels and revelations that continued to be written well into the third and even fourth centuries. The authors did not understand their work as a forgery, but as a new revelation. The Gospel of Judas is perhaps the most recent example.

That would be how I would understand Matthew 16:17-18. I believe that theory is supported by the existence of the power to bind and loose given here. More, the emphasis on the assembly throughout this passage, I believe, supports this contention. Based on the overall context of the material here, it seems that the idea  was to create a corporate structure of authority.

That, in turn, leads to a single, enormous question: Did Jesus ever say this, or anything like this?

It will come as no surprise that I have my doubts. This constitution of authority does not fit into to movement of Jesus’ day. Like the sending out of “those being sent out” (i.e., apostles), this fits with a period of development when the movement was congealing into the proto-church. As time passed, problems occurred, and so the leaders of the movement “discovered” words of Jesus that solved the problems faced by these later followers. Jesus here is clearly anticipating the time when he would not be among them any longer.

Now, looked at that way, the commission to Peter actually gains more plausibility. If Jesus did not say this, then the rock passage could be the earlier occurrence of the bind and loose authority. But the idea that Jesus told Peter he would be the rock on which the ekklesia was built is still specious. So the Roman claim to primacy is almost very certainly based on a later interpolation; Jesus almost certainly did not say those words, just as he did not say the words here granting the power to bind and loose. However, the “where two or three are gathered” could be authentic. It could be something that came down, and Matthew chose to set it into this context. More likely, though, that also was a later addition, because it seems to anticipate the divinity of Jesus much to clearly. 


15 Si autem peccaverit in te frater tuus, vade, corripe eum inter te et ipsum solum. Si te audierit, lucratus es fratrem tuum;

16 si autem non audierit, adhibe tecum adhuc unum vel duos, ut in ore duorum testium vel trium stet omne verbum;

17 quod si noluerit audire eos, dic ecclesiae; si autem et ecclesiam noluerit audire, sit tibi sicut ethnicus et publicanus.

18 Amen dico vobis: Quaecumque alligaveritis super terram, erunt ligata in caelo; et, quaecumque solveritis super terram, erunt soluta in caelo.

19 Iterum dico vobis: Si duo ex vobis consenserint super terram de omni re, quamcumque petierint, fiet illis a Patre meo, qui in caelis est.

20 Ubi enim sunt duo vel tres congregati in nomine meo, ibi sum in medio eorum ”.

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 December 14, 2015, in Chapter 18, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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