Summary Matthew Chapter 19

Once again, we have a chapter in which the material is largely a recapitulation of material in Mark. Divorce, the children, the young man with the many possessions that prevent him from following Jesus. Rather than summarize this and thereby risking redundancy, let’s try to focus on the aspects of this that are not in Mark. The first comes in the early part of the chapter, just after the discussion of divorce. In fact, there are two novel items here. The first is Peter’s statement that it is, perhaps, better not to marry. The second brings eunuchs into the conversation, which plays off the idea of whether it’s better to marry or not.

Mark was content to have Jesus declare that divorce was not allowed. Matthew adds this other element. Think for a moment: does this line of questioning remind us of anything else we’ve read? It seems to hearken back to some of Paul’s discussions of the topic. In fact, if you look up “gameo” in Strong’s Concordance, you will see that the various forms of the word “to marry” are concentrated in Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7. Is this a coincidence? Or is this evidence that Matthew was aware of that epistle? I am not sure what the orthodoxy on this is, whether it’s generally accepted that Matthew was familiar with at least some of the Pauline corpus or not. In this case, I would suggest that it seems like Matthew may have been familiar with some of 1 Corinthians, in that he had a general idea of the gist of that letter, while perhaps not having a written copy himself. Or, if he did have a written copy, he may not have agreed with it completely. I suggest the latter because the ideas expressed by Matthew overlap with, but are not exactly what we find in 1 Corinthians.

The key to the similarity is Peter’s question. This is the main clue that should make us ask whether there is direct influence as opposed to the two writers arriving at a similar place independently of each other. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul spends a fair bit of time discussing marital status: whether one should marry, or if one should become unmarried, or if one can remarry, and so on. Peter drives right at this very point. But more, Jesus, much more succinctly than Paul, provides essentially the same answer, albeit with very different verbiage. Just as Paul says it’s better to marry than to burn, so Jesus says that not everyone can be a eunuch, if only in a figurative sense. These latter, he says, those who choose to live as eunuchs willingly, do this to gain the kingdom of the heavens.

As with so many questions of influence that we’ve encountered, a definitive answer eludes us. Or, perhaps the answer is that we cannot, given the evidence of the text, state with any confidence that Matthew had read 1 Corinthians in any depth. What this appears to show us is that Matthew had become aware that certain members of the community, or of some community, had posed the question of whether one should marry or not. It is possible that the person or persons raising this question may have asked on there own behalf; however, given that Jesus here pretty much summarizes Paul’s more elaborate response, what seems most likely is that Matthew became aware of this teaching in an attenuated form, that he had heard the question and the response, but most likely without having seen or heard the actual text of Paul. Remember that there were most likely a number different traditions, so that the same idea came to the evangelists via different routes should not surprise us. And it occurs to me that we also have the concept of the Life/life eternal in this chapter, which I also suspect came from Paul. With the combination of these two in this chapter, it would be tempting to see this as Matthew tapping into a stream of Pauline teaching; however, the use of the Life was also in Mark, so that rather precludes the notion that Matthew was getting the two ideas together.

In the discussion of Mark 10, where the parallel to this discussion of divorce occurs, we didn’t speculate on the provenance of Jesus’ pronunciation of “what no man has joined…” Did Jesus say this? Or was it a later interpolation? Something that James said? Or did it come from Paul? This latter is an interesting point, because I just went back and checked, and I see that Paul admonished the community about marriage; however, what he said is that a woman must not divorce her husband. There is no correlating admonishment that a husband must not divorce his wife, as we have here. In the comment to the chapter, I was leaning towards this actually coming from Jesus; the break with tradition would have been a significant development, and we have seen, really, so few of these from Jesus that it’s a wonder that he was remembered at all. Now, however, reading what Paul said, I’m leaning the other way. Paul is emphatic that his message came “from the lord”; be that as it may, what this means is that Paul is expressing what he (most likely sincerely) believes that Jesus “told” him in a revelation. What this means is that we have a situation analogous to that of the dietary laws: Jesus left no record behind, so subsequent apostles or authors relied on inspiration to provide what they (no doubt sincerely) believed Jesus would have said had he been asked the question. This is, after all, the technique that Thucydides used to report speeches that he had not actually heard. This was not an uncommon practice in the ancient world; the idea of a verbatim transcript was alien; what mattered was the intent, not the actual words. And and Paul believed, as Matthew did after him, that they were faithfully recording the intent of Jesus, even where there was no actual record of Jesus ever addressing the topic.

In addition, since Paul tells us that a woman cannot divorce her husband, but says nothing about whether a husband could divorce his wife is a pretty clear indication that he and Matthew were on different wavelengths. Matthew provides the more stringent rule; for if the husband cannot, then of course the wife cannot. Paul specifies the rule for the wife, but the unstated assumption, or inference, is that, of course, the husband can divorce the wife. So what this means is that the restriction of divorce had become more stringent in the generation or two after Paul wrote. The proper question in which case, is “why?” Unfortunately, I’m not sure we can answer that. Oh, we can speculate, and toss out theories that may or may not seem plausible, but we’ll simply never really know, barring some unexpected find of a new document.

So once again, I believe this is a later addition to the teachings of Jesus; as such, we are faced with a question of provenance. Since this is contrary to standard practice among Jews of the First Century, James may seem an unlikely choice. As the “Judaizer” par excellence, we would not normally see his hand in something that contravenes standard practice. One could argue that he was restoring what he saw as a right tradition, just as Jesus railed against the practice of “korban”. But both of these trace to Mark, and usually that makes me suspect that these sentiments did not come from James, that they were in place before the Jacobean corpus had become absorbed into the mainstream teachings of Jesus’ followers. So if not James, and not Jesus, this leaves Paul. But we have seen that what Jesus says here is rather different than what Paul recounts as the lord’s dictum on the topic. So whence? The most likely scenario is Paul, but a mutated version of Paul. The Apostle to the Gentiles started many communities; as such, he planted a lot of seeds. Many of these seeds, upon growing, would have been subject to other influences and likely mutated a bit. And in this chapter we have already had another possible instance of Pauline teaching that’s changed a bit around the edges with regards to marital status, why couldn’t this have come along with the other? As such we have a situation in which the concentric circles of Paul’s teachings start to overlap those of Mark and James/Matthew. And these are exactly the sort of circumstances we should expect to find, as the word of Jesus spread from a number of different foci. We may not have Pauline writing yet, but it’s getting there. It will be interesting to see if Paul’s influence is felt more definitively when we get to Luke.

The last bit in this chapter concerns the (young) man of great wealth, and the eye of the needle. In keeping with the approach taken so far in this summary, the point on which we should focus is where Matthew differs from Mark. The camel and the needle, after all, has been discussed; although I’m not sure if we discussed whether Jesus said this, and perhaps we should. On the plus side, this occurred in Mark. As such, it stands almost a generation closer to Jesus than Matthew, and so is less likely to have been influenced by the teaching of James. On the minus side, the disparagement of wealth was not something Paul took seriously. He was concerned with “social justice” in 1 Corinthians when he admonished the wealthy for eating and drinking to excess when other members of the community were going hungry. For the most part, Paul was expecting the return of Jesus daily, so things like social justice didn’t matter all that much since the end was so near. Also on the minus side, this disparagement of wealth is sort of a peripheral topic for Mark and Matthew. It’s not really something that–surprisingly–Jesus talks about all that often. The result is that the minus side seems to have the most points in its favour, even if they do not add up to a terribly strong case. I suppose that, on the plus side, we could add the aphoristic quality of “a camel can more easily pass through the eye of a needle”, which shows a deft turn of phrase. This is the sort of thing that a cynic sage would have said; and Burton Mack’s position is that is what Jesus was, more or less. And I agree that sayings like this would be the sort of thing that got Jesus remembered. The problem is that Mark’s gospel really does not portray Jesus in this light; rather, Jesus is a wonder-worker, so we are justified to ask what the evidence for this truly is. Realistically, the evidence for Jesus the Cynic is thin indeed, and would much more apply to the Jesus of Matthew and Luke, which was well after the time that the legend had been able to develop.

So it’s a toss-up at best. Flip a coin. If I had to give an answer, I would say it’s not. My gut actually tells me that it is authentic Jesus, but I don’t think I trust it in this instance.

This leaves the element that Matthew adds to Mark: the question of Peter. If the rich can’t be saved, who can? This, I think, has James’ fingerprints on it. Here is a true turn of social norms, where wealth is not a moral quality, or it doesn’t represent moral behaviour, the reward for God’s favour. I suppose one could argue that the turn in values is already in Mark, with the eye of the needle expression, but the remarkable aspect is Peter’s incredulity at this. At the very least, the addition of the question indicates, I believe, that between Mark and Matthew this caught enough people short, so that Matthew felt it necessary to add this addendum, thereby clarifying and emphasizing the point of this. If that’s the case, then we can actually subtract James from the equation, and that does seem to make sense.

Regardless of wherever, or from whomever this is derived, the thought expressed represents a pretty significant turn of attitude in the development of western thinking. I’m reading a compilation of primary source material on heresies of the high Middle Ages, called Heresies of the High Middle Ages, edited by Wakefield and Evans (known in the literature as WEH), and the idea of apostolic poverty plays a huge part in so many of the heretical movements described. The idea that wealth didn’t represent virtue, but that poverty did, was a completely novel idea; in some ways, it’s expressed here for the very first time. “If the rich can’t be saved, who can?” is not a question that had ever been asked before. Even Jewish thought didn’t go this far; the calls were for social justice, a reasonably equitable distribution of wealth, admonitions that the wealthy not take advantage of the poor, but nothing about the wealthy as being non-salvageable. The Cynics–Diogenes and those who followed in his footsteps–spurned wealth, but there was no moral taint necessarily attached to wealth per se; really, Diogenes and the Cynics were more odd than morally superior. It is possible that this innovation of thought originated with the Baptist; his hermit’s existence wasn’t so far removed from the Cynic lifestyle (ceteris paribus), but the addition of a call to repent was something of an innovation. This novelty would help explain his popularity to some degree. The Cynics were in it for themselves, really, they did not openly and actively call for others to join them as the Baptist did. And given the presence of the camel and needle aphorism in Mark, that this originated with John is not out of the question. But given the way Jesus explicitly notes how he is unlike John–Jesus was, after all, a glutton and a drunkard–it seems clear that this aspect of John’s teaching was not wholeheartedly embraced by Jesus and his followers.

Ergo, by process of elimination, I would speculate that the moral taint of wealth was originated by the Baptist, but that the realization expressed by Peter only arose after–perhaps long after–Jesus’ death. I would name James as the most likely suspect. Of course, this assumes that we can trust the tradition that consistently associates James with concern for the poor; we have Paul telling us this, and we have the association of James with the Ebionites. Given my general scorn for tradition, it might seem curious that I’m willing to trust it in this case. I do this for three reasons. First, because I want to believe it. Never, ever discount the power of this to influence the thinking of anyone: whether it be me, you, or some unnamed third party. The motivating factor of wanting to believe something because it fits your preconceived world-view is, quite simply, enormous. Second, we do have Paul mentioning James’ admonition that he not forget the poor in the report of the Synod of Jerusalem. Finally, the concern with poverty (blessed are the poor/poor in spirit) increases significantly with Matthew and Luke; that is, after the principles emphasized during James’ leadership of the followers had been given sufficient time to permeate the message as a whole.

This is not iron-clad evidence, but I’m willing to listen to alternatives. I only hope I’m still willing to give alternatives a fair hearing, that I’m not so set in my theories that I will discount anything that doesn’t fit. I realize I’m dangerously close to that line; at times, no doubt I’ve crossed it. This is what happens to all scholars, eventually, which leads to embarrassing rear-guard actions by aging professors who fight the new theories tooth and nail, long past the time when the theories they argued in their youth have been superseded by the new. The king is dead. Long live the king. Or, more modernly, meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.


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 January 15, 2016, in General / Overview, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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