Monthly Archives: March 2016

Matthew Chapter 22:15-22

The chapter continues. Jesus is still engaging the Pharisees and the Sadducees and–and note that the high priests apparently are no longer present. What happened to them? We are in the Temple, after all. They were there at the beginning of the engagement. But it seems that they have slinked away. Or is this another case of editorial fatigue? Matthew just sort of forgot where all of this was situated, since he was just copying down material from sources that had been committed to writing during Jesus’ lifetime, or, at most, shortly after Jesus’ death?

The original plan was to push on through Verse 33; however, the change in topic after the end of Verse 22 provides a logical break for the comment. I decided to go with two shorter sections, rather than a single long one. I hope this doesn’t affect the continuity of the narrative too much. At least, maybe it will not affect continuity as badly as having to wait an inordinately long time in between posts because the sections are too long.

 

15 Τότε πορευθέντες οἱ Φαρισαῖοι συμβούλιον ἔλαβον ὅπως αὐτὸν παγιδεύσωσιν ἐν λόγῳ.

16 καὶ ἀποστέλλουσιν αὐτῷ τοὺς μαθητὰς αὐτῶν μετὰ τῶν Ἡρῳδιανῶν λέγοντες, Διδάσκαλε, οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἀληθὴς εἶ καὶ τὴν ὁδὸν τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ἀληθείᾳ διδάσκεις, καὶ οὐ μέλει σοι περὶ οὐδενός, οὐ γὰρ βλέπεις εἰς πρόσωπον ἀνθρώπων.

17 εἰπὲ οὖν ἡμῖν τί σοι δοκεῖ: ἔξεστιν δοῦναι κῆνσον Καίσαρι ἢ οὔ;

(15) Then the Pharisees having gone away they took counsel how they might ensnare him in his speech.

(16) And they sent to him disciples with those being of the Herodians saying, “Teacher, we know that you are truthful and the way of the lord in truth you teach, and that it does not matter to you about anyone, for you do not look to the face of men. (17) So tell us how it seems to you: is it proper to give the kenson to Caesar or not?”

Note: it’s hard to render the first part of Verse 16 in a way that’s not ambiguous in English. What the passage is saying is that the Pharisees sent some disciples and these disciples approached Jesus along with members of the Herodian party.

The “kensos” is the Greek form of a Latin word. The Latin is literally the “census”, which gets transliterated into Greek as “kensos”. The “census” was essentially a head tax, assessed on everyone that was counted in the census. And the census was taken, largely, for taxing purposes. One paid a flat tax of a given amount to the emperor. Period.

Also, I recall this construction giving me a major problem when we encountered this passage in Mark. The verb is impersonal; so “it does not affect you/matter to you about anyone”, which colloquially would be something like “you don’t give a fig what anyone thinks”. So, I guess this indicates that I’ve made some progress in my comprehension since then. This is not the most straightforward construction, but it doesn’t seem all that difficult on this iteration. And this is more or less a second iteration, since it’s almost verbatim from Mark. And the bit about “not looking to the face of men” is a way of saying that one is not concerned with the opinion of humans, but with the will of God.

Finally, the most interesting part of this may be that Jesus is being quizzed by the disciples of the Pharisees, and some of the Herodians. These would be the party of Herod, presumably Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee among other places. There are a couple of reasons why this is curious. First, we are not in Galilee, nor anywhere else under Herod’s authority. As such, these people had no sort of authority in any real sense. Herod ruled at the sufferance of Rome; Pilate was the prefect; he had the legions; he was in charge and minor characters like Herod did what they were told. Of course, we will later be told in the course of the Passion narrative that Herod was in town, presumably for Passover. Given this, it would scarcely be surprising that he had retainers, a retinue, a group of camp followers with him. Rather, the sticking point comes in two ways: why would Herod’s followers be trying to trip up Jesus while he was in Jerusalem? Why would they particularly care? While he’s in Judea, he’s the problem of others, namely (or ultimately) Pilate.

There would be no benefit to the Herodians to stir up trouble on someone else’s turf. To understand this, it’s really imperative to realize just how ruthless and savage the Romans were as a rule. They were perfectly willing to let you practice your own religion, believe whatever you wanted, but just don’t cause trouble. Those who did were dealt with very severely. And the Romans weren’t always careful about wading through the circumstances to find the real culprit, or the party that was truly responsible for the uproar. Yes, it’s conceivable to suggest that followers of Herod might not have minded to see Jesus get in trouble in Jerusalem, to the point that the Romans might arrest him and dispose of him. Of course, this assumes that Jesus had a substantial following that had caused problems in Galilee. Mark tells that Jesus had an enormous following on the one hand but then tells us that Jesus kept his identity a closely-guarded secret. Which was it?

There is one more critical point to remember. According to our best source on Jesus’ career, Jesus did not become recognised as the Messiah until after he was raised from the dead. This is what Paul tells us, if a bit obliquely, and only between the lines. If this is true–and we have no reason to doubt what Paul tells us–then Jesus made no claim to political title during his lifetime. He was not hailed as the Messiah. He did not claim to be “King of the Jews”. As such, there was no reason for Herod, who had the best claim to the title, to feel uneasy about Jesus’ career. It’s important to note that the idea of Jesus as King of the Jews only shows up in the Passion narrative, and there is real opinion that the Passion narrative had a separate genesis outside the evangelists. That is, Mark found the story more or less intact. And Paul seems unaware of this story. He never referred to it, and tells us that Jesus only became the Christ upon being raised from the dead. Given this, much of the political motivation for Herod, and the Romans, to see Jesus as an insurrectionist pretty much goes away. Jesus was not a zealot, Aslan’s book to the contrary. As such, why would the Herodians seek to stir things up while they are in Jerusalem, under Pilate’s jurisdiction? Why put yourself at risk? So, I ask again, why are the Herodians here?

My suggestion is that they are here as sort of back-fill from the Passion narrative. There was a need, or a desire, to widen the conspiracy against Jesus to include as many of the authorities–of the Jewish authorities–as possible. This was present already, and perhaps especially, in Mark, who had most need to throw the blame for Jesus’ death anywhere but upon Rome. 

Of course, this is speculation, but it is, perhaps, educated guesswork. At times I get the sense that I’m really twisting things to fit my theories; if such is the case, this will only become apparent as I review what I’ve written to see if it is internally consistent. I believe so, but then, of course  I would.

Now the question becomes, did this happen? Does this–or more accurately, could this–reflect something that (more or less) actually happened? Probably not, at least given the assumptions that I have been making, and that I’ve made in this comment. This is a decidedly political action, one meant to demonstrate loyalty–or at least, grudging acceptance–of the Roman imperium. Jesus is saying he has no problem with this. My suspicion is that this comment would be more appropriate to the early 70s than it would be to the mid-30s. At the later time there was more urgency to the need to be accepting the Roman rule. Yes, Judea and Galilee were perennial hotspots, flash points of trouble for Rome, so demonstrating something approaching good will was always politick. But in the 70s it was something more akin to self-preservation. And again, if we remove the idea of the Messiah and the King of the Jews from Jesus’ resumé, then the need to be conciliatory is greatly diminished, which cannot be said of the early 70s when Mark wrote. So, yes, this could have been based on a real incident in the life of Jesus, but it probably wasn’t.

15 Tunc abeuntes pharisaei consilium inierunt, ut caperent eum in sermone.

16 Et mittunt ei discipulos suos cum herodianis dicentes: “ Magister, scimus quia verax es et viam Dei in veritate doces, et non est tibi cura de aliquo; non enim respicis personam hominum.

17 Dic ergo nobis quid tibi videatur: Licet censum dare Caesari an non?”.

18 γνοὺς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὴν πονηρίαν αὐτῶν εἶπεν, Τί με πειράζετε, ὑποκριταί;

19 ἐπιδείξατέ μοι τὸ νόμισμα τοῦ κήνσου. οἱ δὲ προσήνεγκαν αὐτῷ δηνάριον.

20 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Τίνος ἡ εἰκὼν αὕτη καὶ ἡ ἐπιγραφή;

21 λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Καίσαρος. τότε λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ἀπόδοτε οὖν τὰ Καίσαρος Καίσαρι καὶ τὰ τοῦ θεοῦ τῷ θεῷ.

22 καὶ ἀκούσαντες ἐθαύμασαν, καὶ ἀφέντες αὐτὸν ἀπῆλθαν.

(18) But knowing Jesus the wickedness of them said, “Why do you test me, hypocrites? (19) Show me the established (coin) of the census (the coin and its denomination used to pay the census tax)”.

(20) They showed forth to him a denarius.

(21) And he asked them, “Of whom is the image and the epigraph?”

(21) They said to him, “Of Caesar”. Then he said to them, “Give over the things of Caesar to Caesar, and the things of God to God.”

(22) And hearing, they marveled, and quitting him they went away.   

Honestly, this passage is too well-known to require any real comment. The cleverness of the ruse, the wittiness of the response, all of it is first rate. And we’ve already discussed the probable (lack of) historicity of the incident. The only comment to be made is to note that this is one of the first times that suggested the separation of Church and State. As such, this passage was often at the centre of the discussions between pope and secular rulers during the thousand years of the Middle Ages. And even before that, when Christianity was legalised by Constantine, and then made obligatory by Theodoric, this passage figured prominently as the two types of power tried to come to some sort of modus operandi.  

18 Cognita autem Iesus nequitia eorum, ait: “ Quid me tentatis, hypocritae?

19 Ostendite mihi nomisma census ”. At illi obtulerunt ei denarium.

20 Et ait illis: “ Cuius est imago haec et suprascriptio? ”.

21 Dicunt ei: “ Caesaris ”. Tunc ait illis: “ Reddite ergo, quae sunt Caesaris, Caesari et, quae sunt Dei, Deo ”.

22 Et audientes mirati sunt et, relicto eo, abierunt.

 

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Matthew Chapter 22:1-13

Apparently, Jesus is still engaged with the same Pharisees and high priests as he was at the end of the last chapter. Their conversation continues, with Jesus beginning another parable. This comes third after that of the Two Sons and the Wicked Tenants.

1 Καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Ἰησοῦς πάλιν εἶπεν ἐν παραβολαῖς αὐτοῖς λέγων,

2 Ὡμοιώθη ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ βασιλεῖ, ὅστις ἐποίησεν γάμους τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ.

And answering, Jesus again spoke in parables to them, saying, (2) “The kingdom of the heavens is like a king to men, who prepared a wedding ceremony for his son.” 

The “king to men” is a dative of possession. It’s like “c’est a moi”, which is also a dative of possession. And here we see Jesus is still speaking to the high priests.

1 Et respondens Iesus dixit ite rum in parabolis eis dicens:

2 “Simile factum est regnum caelorum homini regi, qui fecit nuptias filio suo.

3 καὶ ἀπέστειλεν τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ καλέσαι τοὺς κεκλημένους εἰς τοὺς γάμους, καὶ οὐκ ἤθελον ἐλθεῖν.

4 πάλιν ἀπέστειλεν ἄλλους δούλους λέγων, Εἴπατε τοῖς κεκλημένοις, Ἰδοὺ τὸ ἄριστόν μου ἡτοίμακα, οἱ ταῦροί μου καὶ τὰ σιτιστὰ τεθυμένα, καὶ πάντα ἕτοιμα: δεῦτε εἰς τοὺς γάμους.

(3) “And he sent his slaves out to call those invited to the marriage, and they did not wish to come.

(4) “Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those invited, ‘Look at my best I have prepared, my bulls (oxen) and *fatlings* have been burned and all is prepared. Come to the wedding’.

This is the only use of the Greek word here translated as *fatlings*. As such, we have no way to know what it means. Here is where the Vulgate comes in handy. It is rendered into Latin as “altilia”, and this is a word that has some usage, so we know–in this instance–that “fatling” is actually the proper translation. And it certainly fits the context. 

3 Et misit servos suos vocare invitatos ad nuptias, et nolebant venire.

4 Iterum misit alios servos dicens: “Dicite invitatis: Ecce prandium meum paravi, tauri mei et altilia occisa, et omnia parata; venite ad nuptias”.

5 οἱ δὲ ἀμελήσαντες ἀπῆλθον, ὃς μὲν εἰς τὸν ἴδιον ἀγρόν, ὃς δὲ ἐπὶ τὴν ἐμπορίαν αὐτοῦ:

6 οἱ δὲ λοιποὶ κρατήσαντες τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ ὕβρισαν καὶ ἀπέκτειναν.

(5) “Those being neglectful (i.e., of the invitation) went away, on one hand one (went) to his field, while another to his business. (6) The rest seizing his slaves acted in a high-handed fashion and killed them.

What I’ve rendered as “acted in a high-handed fashion” is the verb “hubrizein”. You may recognize this as from the root of “hubris”, which is the overstepping of one’s allotted purview in Greek tragedy, thereby invoking the “phthonos” of the gods, who send “nemesis”. So these invitees overstepped the bounds of their place and their authority by acting improperly towards the slaves of another man and killing them. So it’s not like there are two separate ideas here, they didn’t beat the slaves and the kill them; rather, they acted outrageously by killing them.

5 Illi autem neglexerunt et abierunt, alius in villam suam, alius vero ad negotiationem suam;

6 reliqui vero tenuerunt servos eius et contumelia affectos occiderunt.

7 ὁ δὲ βασιλεὺς ὠργίσθη, καὶ πέμψας τὰ στρατεύματα αὐτοῦ ἀπώλεσεν τοὺς φονεῖς ἐκείνους καὶ τὴν πόλιν αὐτῶν ἐνέπρησεν.

 

(7) “Then the king waxed wroth, and he sent his army to kill these killers and burned their city.

Once again the Vulgate bails us out. The verb translated as “burned” is extremely rare, pretty much occurring exactly this once. So what does it mean? Well, St Jerome decided it meant “to burn”, and the Latin verb again is fairly common in the sense that the word is used a number of times by different authors. This way the context can be checked and cross-checked for the word’s meaning.

Interesting that we have two such words in the space of a few verses in this story. What does this mean? It means that the author was both very familiar with Greek, but familiar with perhaps a non-standard version, or a version that had a number of idiosyncrasies. The vocabulary was a bit unusual. Generally, such rare words are the result of either an older form of a language being preserved by being in a secluded enclave, away from the mainstream development of a language. Hence, “hark, what light through yonder window breaks” would only be found in Shakespeare or Appalachia, the latter being an enclave cut off from the mainstream, thereby preserving these archaic forms. Or, we go to the other extreme, that words are formed in the very centre of the civilisation, where neologisms are created. “Sisista”, the word used for “fatlings” does not entirely sound Greek to me. It sounds like a loan word from another language. If this is true, that it was imported, the language of origin could provide a pretty strong clue about where this gospel was likely written. Matthew almost certainly gathered stories from different sources and places; if the word were, say, Persian, then we could suggest that Matthew lived somewhere that there was a certain amount of interaction with Persians. Such a place would be the eastern border of the Roman Empire, like Mesopotamia, where the Sassanid Empire and Rome faced each other in an uneasy truce that held most of the time. In those times there would be a certain amount of commerce back and forth, and the word got imported with whatever other Persian products made their way into the Roman sphere. The verb “to burn”, OTOH, sounds pretty much like it’s of Greek origin. So an old form? Someplace in the shadow of Persia could be a likely spot where an enclave of Greek-speakers lived on cut off from the mainstream of Greek speech.

All very fascinating, but I have no idea of the origin of “sisista”. So this is pure speculation, but the principles and the processes described are accurate. It’s just a matter of isolating the location.

The bit about “burning their city” is almost certainly a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70. This time, the king did not send a son as well as slaves, but coming hard on the heels of the parable of the Wicked Tenants, it was probably not necessary to repeat the idea. I’m sure it was not lost on listeners, especially those who were listening to this in a continuous stream. So this third parable reaffirms the message of the first two, and provides the additional reassurance that, yes, Jesus had foreseen the sack of the city.

Of course, it’s interesting to note that the king invited people from a city that he subsequently burned. This is clearly an act of vengeance, but it also does not reflect well on the king for inviting this particular group of guests in the first place, especially if he felt that he could burn down their town. But, as I am wont to say, this is a myth; it’s not intended to have a one-to-one correlation to real life. The reason I bring this up is to point out how this relates to the Predestination debate that will create havoc for a thousand years, and which still has never been “settled” in Catholic doctrine. For if God predestines all to either Heaven or Hell, why were the Jews the Chosen People if at some point they were going to be superseded by pagan non-Jews? But the pursuit of this debate is beyond the scope of this commentary. As I said, it has never truly been settled, largely because it cannot truly be settled. At least, it can’t be settled without some contravention of our understanding of “God”.

7 Rex autem iratus est et, missis exercitibus suis, perdidit homicidas illos et civitatem illorum succendit.

8 τότε λέγει τοῖς δούλοις αὐτοῦ, Ὁ μὲν γάμος ἕτοιμός ἐστιν, οἱ δὲ κεκλημένοι οὐκ ἦσαν ἄξιοι:

9 πορεύεσθε οὖν ἐπὶ τὰς διεξόδους τῶν ὁδῶν, καὶ ὅσους ἐὰν εὕρητε καλέσατε εἰς τοὺς γάμους.

(8) “The he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding (banquet) is prepared, those having been invited are not worthy. (9) Therefore go out upon the passageways of the roads, and whomever you find invite (him/her) to the wedding.’

It’s tempting to point out that the king just sent out a military expedition to burn a city. Now he’s telling his slaves to invite whomever they encounter to a banquet that has been prepared, presumably hanging fire while the city was razed. But again, that is asking for a degree of literal truth that is simply beyond the intent of the story. This is, in truth, an excellent example of “myth”; of course it doesn’t make sense in a literal way. To ask this to make sense is to miss the point entirely. It’s meant to cause the listener to look back to the events of 70, and to understand them in a symbolic way. The Jews had been invited; they declined to attend, so their city was burned in the best “God is annoyed” fashion from, say, Judges, and so bad things happen to the Jews; God delivered them into the hands of their enemies. Then, to make up for the empty places, the pagans are to be invited. So, mythically and symbolically, it makes perfect “sense”. This is how much of the narrative of the entire Bible is to be taken.

8 Tunc ait servis suis: “Nuptiae quidem paratae sunt, sed qui invitati erant, non fuerunt digni;

9 ite ergo ad exitus viarum, et quoscumque inveneritis, vocate ad nuptias”.

10 καὶ ἐξελθόντες οἱ δοῦλοι ἐκεῖνοι εἰς τὰς ὁδοὺς συνήγαγον πάντας οὓς εὗρον, πονηρούς τε καὶ ἀγαθούς: καὶ ἐπλήσθη ὁ γάμος ἀνακειμένων.

11 εἰσελθὼν δὲ ὁ βασιλεὺς θεάσασθαι τοὺς ἀνακειμένους εἶδεν ἐκεῖ ἄνθρωπον οὐκ ἐνδεδυμένον ἔνδυμα γάμου:

12 καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, Ἑταῖρε, πῶς εἰσῆλθες ὧδε μὴ ἔχων ἔνδυμα γάμου; ὁ δὲ ἐφιμώθη.

13 τότε ὁ βασιλεὺς εἶπεν τοῖς διακόνοις, Δήσαντες αὐτοῦ πόδας καὶ χεῖρας ἐκβάλετε αὐτὸν εἰς τὸ σκότος τὸ ἐξώτερον: ἐκεῖ ἔσται ὁ κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὁ βρυγμὸς τῶν ὀδόντων. 

14 πολλοὶ γάρ εἰσιν κλητοὶ ὀλίγοι δὲ ἐκλεκτοί.

(11) “Then the king going out to see those having been invited saw there a man not garbed in wedding garb. (12) And he (the king) said to him (the guest), ‘Comrade, how did you come this wan not having wedding garb?’ But he was silenced. (13) Then the king said to the deacons, ‘Bind him foot and hands (and) throw him out into the darkness that is outside. There there is the wailing and gnashing of teeth.’ (14) For many are called, but those chosen are few’.”

 

Comment below.

10 Et egressi servi illi in vias, congregaverunt omnes, quos invenerunt, malos et bonos; et impletae sunt nuptiae discumbentium.

11 Intravit autem rex, ut videret discumbentes, et vidit ibi hominem non vestitum veste nuptiali

12 et ait illi: “Amice, quomodo huc intrasti, non habens vestem nuptialem?”. At ille obmutuit.

13 Tunc dixit rex ministris: “Ligate pedes eius et manus et mittite eum in tenebras exteriores: ibi erit fletus et stridor dentium”.

14 Multi enim sunt vocati, pauci vero electi ”.

Here is another great example of the difference between myth and literal truth. Think about it: the slaves are told to invited whomsoever they found. There was no stipulation that they were to be in wedding garb. And yet, someone is at the wedding not in proper attire. Are we to assume that all the others, upon being invited, first went home and changed into proper dress before coming to the banquet? No, of course not. To ask that, or to assume that is, again, to impose a burden of factuality on a story that is an example; it’s a parable. So this level of realism is as inappropriate as the man’s dress.

To be quite honest, this story used to bother me for exactly that reason: it didn’t (really) make sense. But it does. We are all invited to the banquet, but we’d best show up dressed properly or we’ll be tossed into the darkness. What is most interesting to me now is that he is tossed into darkness, rather than into the unquenchable fire threatened by the Baptist back in Chapter 3. But again, that’s asking for a consistency appropriate to a closeted theologian who is conceptualizing Heaven and Hell somewhere in an Ivory Tower, where she has the time to reflect, to think through, and to spot inconsistencies. Because how many places have you been where there was an unquenchable fire burning outside? But we all have been places where and when it was dark outside. As a final note to this, we have Zoroaster to thank for this image of the dark as something bad. 

As a final word on the parable as a whole, it should be pointed out that this is unique to Matthew. As such, it cannot be said to be part of the Q material since it wasn’t used by Luke. As such, it’s ascribed to the M material, the sources that were only available to Matthew. Here again, this explanation and categorization pretty clearly demonstrates how Biblical exegetes will find a way to set up a pathway by which all the material can be traced back to Jesus; that is, nothing was composed in the interim between Jesus’ death and the time of the writing. This story does not trace back to Jesus. It was composed after 70 CE, after the destruction of Jerusalem. Did Matthew have a source than handed this story down to him? Perhaps. Did Matthew compose this? That’s at least as likely as his having a source, and I would say it’s even more likely. I find it difficult to believe that Matthew set out to write a gospel without actually, you know, writing part of it. With Mark, I find it easier to accept that he did sit down with a bunch of different stories from different sources and try to cobble them together, and that he eventually did cobble them together into something like the gospel that we have bearing his name. With Matthew, however, that’s much harder to accept since there is so much more in Matthew’s gospel. There are a dozen (no, I didn’t actually count them; it’s a metaphorical number. Like the Twelve) stories added in Matthew, including the three chapters of the Sermon on the Mount. Most of what is added is stuff Jesus (supposedly) said.

So why didn’t Luke include this story? Really, why should he? Luke easily has a dozen more stories that aren’t in Matthew, many of them being the most memorable in the NT. Does this constitute evidence that Luke never saw Matthew, and didn’t use Matthew as a source? Absolutely not. When we get to Like, a comparison of the stories that they share will demonstrate, pretty conclusively, I believe, that Luke did use Matthew. The stories of John the Baptist and the Temptations are great examples. But that will be more appropriate to discuss when we get there. 

Summary Matthew Chapter 21

This chapter began with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. If I hurry, perhaps I can get this post up in time for Palm Sunday which is coming up. From there we had the cleansing of the Temple, the cursing of the fig tree, and we concluded with a couple of paragraphs about the sort of people who would get into the kingdom of the heavens. Hint: (self-)righteous Jews are not at the top of the list.

The cursing of the fig tree is one of the more interesting pieces of the chapter. The story was in Mark, but this version changes things around a bit. It always struck me as curious that a) Jesus expect the tree to have figs, even though it was spring, rather than the season for figs; and b) when his unreasonable quest for figs is thwarted, he gets really annoyed and curses the tree. In this story, it withers on the spot, whereas in Mark it happened over the course of the day. One question: rather than using his power to curse the tree, why not use it to produce figs? Well, of course, because the tree is a metaphor. It’s meant to tell us what will happen to those trees that do not bear good fruit; or any fruit at all. In which case, it’s again unlikely that this story reflects any kind of real-world experience that occurred with Jesus; of course, this necessarily implies that it was made up later. But is that any more likely? Let’s think about this for a moment. The point of the story is that those not bearing good fruit don’t make it to the kingdom of God/heaven/the heavens. How soon did that message become part of the teaching? Did it start with Jesus? And we need to realise that, just because teaching of the kingdom can (probably) be traced back to Jesus, that’s not the same thing as saying that some will be excluded from it. Personally, I think it makes more sense for this message to develop after a period of time, after the acceptance of Jesus among Jews had tapered off to a trickle, and after the higher caste of society perhaps did not find the message of Jesus as appealing as other members did. So I think this is a bit of ex-post-facto rationalization of the way this all developed.

And to emphasize this, we get the next two parables that tell us that those we might expect to inherit–the A-listers, as it were–would not be the ones to inherit the kingdom after all. The two sons tells us that it won’t be the righteous, the ones who agree on the outside, but with their fingers crossed, who enter the kingdom, but the repentant. It will be those who rebelled at first, taking the wrong path, but eventually they have a change of heart. This was also the message of the Workers in the Vineyard: yes, some will be late-comers, who won’t have worked through the heat of the day, but their reward will be the same. So we have the sinners, the tax collectors, the despised, upon whom the righteous look down upon with scorn who will enter the kingdom. The followers of Jesus were, apparently, a disreputable lot in the view of many of these self-same righteous people. But, oh well, the joke is on the righteous, apparently. On one hand, the Wicked Tenants does not have to be about Jews and Gentiles. It works perfectly well on a good vs bad level. Here, however, the wicked ones do not repent, but persist in their evil ways. It’s only when the high priests realize that Jesus was speaking about them does the Jew/pagan theme creep in, I think. After all, the high priests are not outwardly wicked, so their eventual exclusion is perhaps rather startling. If the priests won’t enter, who will?

Of course, the idea of the priests not being wicked should be qualified. They have not been wicked–yet. Of course their wicked behaviour is described when the Wicked Tenants kill the son of the owner of the vineyard. The role that the priests will play in the soon-t0-come death of Jesus is perfectly anticipated in the parable. Perfectly? A little too perfectly, doesn’t it seem? So this is more evidence that this piece was composed after Jesus’ death, when the outcome had become clear, even if the perpetrators had been invented.

But this latter was composed pretty early, since it was in Mark. I would tend to suspect it arose shortly after the Passion narrative came into circulation. This ties neatly in with that, anticipating what the high priests will do. Shall we give credit to James for this? Perhaps, but not necessarily so. Remember, there was not a single Jesus tradition, and this was true already in the time of Paul, who spoke about “other gospels”. And let’s remember that Paul got all his material directly from God, via divine inspiration. How many others like him were there? Or how many who had heard Jesus preach retold the stories of Jesus, which grew in the telling, which is how all true epic poetry comes about. And the story is growing. With Luke it will hit its culmination.

But let’s go back to the fig tree for a few moments. There are several tracks, or layers to this story, and two of them interrelate quite nicely. What is this story? It’s not a parable, but it be called some sort of a cautionary tale. But first and foremost, it’s a blatant demonstration of power. Jesus killed the tree with his words. And he did it in a fit of pique. This hard kernel sometimes gets lost under the metaphors and allegories, but the demonstration of power lies at the base of this. Think about it; how many bad movies have you seen in which personified Death makes the flowers wither and die just by passing too near them? It’s a cliché. That’s more or less what Jesus does here. What sort of person performs wondrous acts like this? Well, a wonder-worker. And this is a particularly unadulterated example of a wonder. Yes, we can–indeed, we did–allegorize this. But the combination of the anger and the power is not terribly edifying for the Messiah, but it is a pretty impressive display for a wonder-worker. This is not someone you want to cross. And the thing is, because it’s not exactly a flattering depiction or description of Jesus, I believe this story is very old. It might even trace to Jesus’ lifetime. Does this mean Jesus actually killed a tree with his words? Perhaps not, but I think it does indicate that people believed he did such things. Just as he healed the lame, gave the blind their sight, and expelled demons. In other words, he worked wonders.

Which leads us to the last part of this. I’ve said numerous times that I think Matthew was actually a bit embarrassed by Jesus’ miracles. I have the sense he found them a bit theatrical, and not in a good sense of the word. So why does he repeat this story? Because it was expected that he would tell this story. He was not excising stories, but he was presenting a more well-rounded picture of Jesus, one emphasizing his divinity. So, he keeps the story; killing a tree with words is the sort of thing a divine person could do, after all. But he has to change the ending, or perhaps the moral of the story. And this new twist takes this from being a rather vulgar display of power and turns it into a lesson about faith. After all, Jesus tells those disciples who witnessed the event that they could command mountains to throw into the sea. This theme of faith as cause of miraculous events is very old. This is part of the original stratum of Jesus’ teaching; that is, I believe that it was part of what Jesus himself actually taught. So Matthew rather kills two birds (fig trees?) with one stone: he taps into the tradition of Jesus’ teaching about faith and uses it to elevate what is, at heart, a somewhat unflattering depiction of the Messiah. And I just want to stress once again just how potentially embarrassing this story is, and how detrimental to the idea of Jesus as divine. It’s the spring; fruit ripens in the fall. Of course there are no figs, and what sort of person–divine, human, or otherwise–would expect there to be ripe fruit? So Matthew needs to change the subject, and quickly. That he didn’t simply leave this on the cutting room floor indicates, I think, just how strong the tradition of Jesus the wonder-worker was, even into Matthew’s day.

The only thing left to discuss is the events of that first Palm Sunday. Matthew doesn’t necessarily add too much to it. In Mark I believe we had a good description of a procession, Jesus in the midst of an entourage that stuck with him. Here, we got a few hints of the attraction this created among the onlookers. What is odd is that when the onlookers asked who Jesus was, Matthew did not take this opportunity to tell the crowd that this was the Messiah, or at least the scion of David. Instead, he settles for calling Jesus a prophet. Why the reticence? If the point of this gospel is to tell us who Jesus is, why not tell us here, too? Later in the Temple, the children are shouting “Hosanna to the son of David”, so why not here as well? Of course, this leads to the question did this happen in any way, shape or form? I’m halfway tempted to say that it did. People did continue to talk about Jesus after he died. Therefore, it’s certainly not outrageous to say that he impressed a fair number of people while he was alive. Think of it this way: Jesus comes to Jerusalem for Passover. He stays with followers who live in Bethany. They all troop into Jerusalem, surrounding Jesus, whether he’s riding a donkey or just walking. It’s not all that far-fetched. The owner of the house may have had that donkey, too. Or that may have belonged to another follower, who had told Jesus where to find the donkey. There is a certain amount of logic to this, and there is nothing terribly unlikely about it. He did draw followers. But from some rather humble beginnings, the story turns into the 50,000 of Simon Zealotes in Jesus Christ Superstar, or the mob scenes depicted in the movies made about Jesus. And here was the grain of sand around which the pearl of the Passion narrative grew. Perhaps Jesus’ entourage did make a bit too much noise, or too much of a spectacle, or interfered with someone or something and drew the attention of the Temple authorities. But did this lead to Jesus’ arrest? Probably not.

In Matthew’s narrative the Cleansing of the Temple was also part of the events of Palm Sunday. This, I feel confident to say, did not happen. This is exactly the sort of disruptive behaviour that would have gotten him arrested on the spot. Neither the Jews nor the Romans would have countenanced a ruckus in the Temple precinct, especially not with the swollen and possibly edgy crowd of visitors to Jerusalem. The question becomes, how odd of a thing was this to invent? My first instinct was “very odd”, but upon further reflection, perhaps not. The Temple commerce was a big deal; the Temple and the priests likely made money on this. So if you wanted to invent something that would irk them, a disruption of this commerce would be a very understandable tale to tell. Plus, it has the advantage of making them seem venal, and not particularly religious since they were only in it for the money.

So the procession into Jerusalem is possible, perhaps even likely. The cleansing of the Temple, perhaps not so much.

Matthew Chapter 21:33-46

We conclude Chapter 21 with another parable. Recall that we had another at the end of the last section, a parable about two brothers asked to help in the vineyard. The first refused, but relented; the second agreed but didn’t go. This one we will recognize as the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.

33 Ἄλλην παραβολὴν ἀκούσατε. Ἄνθρωπος ἦν οἰκοδεσπότης ὅστις ἐφύτευσεν ἀμπελῶνα καὶ φραγμὸν αὐτῷ περιέθηκεν καὶ ὤρυξεν ἐν αὐτῷ ληνὸν καὶ ᾠκοδόμησεν πύργον, καὶ ἐξέδετο αὐτὸν γεωργοῖς, καὶ ἀπεδήμησεν.

Listen now to another parable. “A man who was being the head of a household planted a vineyard and encircled it with a wall and dug in it a wine press and constructed a tower, and he leased it to farmers, and then he went away.

We have set the scene. “Farmers” doesn’t exactly work for people running a vineyard; the root is from “gaia”, the “earth” (hence Pangea, the Latinised form), so perhaps it’s a bit more general than farmer, but I’m picking nits here. The point is, this is a substantial piece of construction. 

33 Aliam parabolam audite. Homo erat pater familias, qui plantavit vineam et saepem circumdedit ei et fodit in ea torcular et aedificavit turrim et locavit eam agricolis et peregre profectus est.

34 ὅτε δὲ ἤγγισεν ὁ καιρὸς τῶν καρπῶν, ἀπέστειλεν τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ πρὸς τοὺς γεωργοὺς λαβεῖν τοὺς καρποὺς αὐτοῦ.

35 καὶ λαβόντες οἱ γεωργοὶ τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ ὃν μὲν ἔδειραν, ὃν δὲ ἀπέκτειναν, ὃν δὲ ἐλιθοβόλησαν.

“When arrived the season of the fruit, he sent his slaves to the farmers to received his fruit. (35) And the farmers seizing his slaves whom on the one hand they beat, and whom on the other they killed, and whom they threw stones at him.  

The first point is that the landlord was accepting payment of the rent in kind. In effect, those leasing the vineyard were sharecroppers. The second point is that the second part of Verse 35 is a really unusual construction. The use of the << μὲν…δὲ…δὲ >> is very interesting. On one hand, << μὲν >>, it’s sort of a grammar-school sort of usage, not terribly sophisticated perhaps, but very effective. I’m honestly not sure if I should look down my nose at it or be impressed. Upon review, I’ll lean towards the latter interpretation, since he rescued it with the whom…whom…whom construction. Matthew wasn’t completely unversed in Greek. But no, this doesn’t help us decide whether he had been a pagan or not; by the time he wrote, there were many, many Jews whose first language was Greek. Philo of Alexandria is one of the more famous. And we know that Matthew read his HS in Greek rather than Hebrew, since he translated Isaiah’s “young girl” as “virgin”, which is what the Greek word was: “parthena”. (Yes, as in Parthenon. Athene was a virgin per Greek mythology.) 

34 Cum autem tempus fructuum appropinquasset, misit servos suos ad agricolas, ut acciperent fructus eius.

35 Et agricolae, apprehensis servis eius, alium ceciderunt, alium occiderunt, alium vero lapidaverunt.

36 πάλιν ἀπέστειλεν ἄλλους δούλους πλείονας τῶν πρώτων, καὶ ἐποίησαν αὐτοῖς ὡσαύτως.

37 ὕστερον δὲ ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς αὐτοὺς τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ λέγων, Ἐντραπήσονται τὸν υἱόν μου.

“Again he sent to other slaves, more than the first ones (a larger number of them), and they did the same to them. (37) Finally, he sent to them his son, saying, ‘They will heed my son’. 

Not much to say here. Just to stress again << δούλους >> does not mean “servant”, regardless of how many times you see it as such. It means “slave”. There have been a couple of instances where we’ve come across a word that does mean something more like “servant”, but there have been only a couple, to the point where I don’t recall the word offhand. And Paul often refers to himself as the << δούλος >> of Christ. He means “slave”.

36 Iterum misit alios servos plures prioribus, et fecerunt illis similiter.

37 Novissime autem misit ad eos filium suum dicens: “Verebuntur filium meum”.

38 οἱ δὲ γεωργοὶ ἰδόντες τὸν υἱὸν εἶπον ἐν ἑαυτοῖς, Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ κληρονόμος: δεῦτε ἀποκτείνωμεν αὐτὸν καὶ σχῶμεν τὴν κληρονομίαν αὐτοῦ.

39 καὶ λαβόντες αὐτὸν ἐξέβαλον ἔξω τοῦ ἀμπελῶνος καὶ ἀπέκτειναν.

“The farmers seeing the son said amongst themselves, ‘He is the heir; following, let us kill him and we may have his inheritance’. (39) And seizing him, they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.  

We all knew this was going to end badly, didn’t we? The interesting part is that they expected to have his inheritance. Perhaps they intended to take it by force? Or did they expect that the landlord would simply concede it to them?

38 Agricolae autem videntes filium dixerunt intra se: “Hic est heres. Venite, occidamus eum et habebimus hereditatem eius”.

39 Et apprehensum eum eiecerunt extra vineam et occiderunt.

40 ὅταν οὖν ἔλθῃ ὁ κύριος τοῦ ἀμπελῶνος, τί ποιήσει τοῖς γεωργοῖς ἐκείνοις;

41 λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Κακοὺς κακῶς ἀπολέσει αὐτούς, καὶ τὸν ἀμπελῶνα ἐκδώσεται ἄλλοις γεωργοῖς, οἵτινες ἀποδώσουσιν αὐτῷ τοὺς καρποὺς ἐν τοῖς καιροῖς αὐτῶν.

42 λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Οὐδέποτε ἀνέγνωτε ἐν ταῖς γραφαῖς, Λίθον ὃν ἀπεδοκίμασαν οἱ οἰκοδομοῦντες οὗτος ἐγενήθη εἰς κεφαλὴν γωνίας: παρὰ κυρίου ἐγένετο αὕτη, καὶ ἔστιν θαυμαστὴ ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν;

43 διὰ τοῦτο λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ἀρθήσεται ἀφ’ ὑμῶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ δοθήσεται ἔθνει ποιοῦντι τοὺς καρποὺς αὐτῆς.

44 [Καὶ ὁ πεσὼν ἐπὶ τὸν λίθον τοῦτον συνθλασθήσεται: ἐφ’ ὃν δ’ ἂν πέσῃ λικμήσει αὐτόν.]

45 Καὶ ἀκούσαντες οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι τὰς παραβολὰς αὐτοῦ ἔγνωσαν ὅτι περὶ αὐτῶν λέγει:

46 καὶ ζητοῦντες αὐτὸν κρατῆσαι ἐφοβήθησαν τοὺς ὄχλους, ἐπεὶ εἰς προφήτην αὐτὸν εἶχον.

(40) “When therefore the lord of the vineyard may come, what will he do to these tenant-farmers?”

(41) They said to him (Jesus), “These bad ones badly he will destroy them, and the vineyard he will lease to other tenant-farmers, who will give over to him the fruit in their season of them.”

(42) He said to them Jesus, “Nowhere do you know in the writings, ‘The stone which the builders reject, this will become the head corner. It will become for the lord, and it is a wonder in our eyes’.” (43) “Because of this I say to you that taken from you will be the kingdom of God and it will be given to the nations making its fruit. (44) [ And the one falling upon this stone will be broken. From which, on the other hand, it might fall to crush him (the one it falls upon).

(45) And hearing his parables, the high priests and the Pharisees knew that about them he was speaking. (46) And seeking to apprehend him they feared the crowd, since as a prophet they held him.

My apologies, but I have to start at the end. This is, I believe, at least the second time we’ve heard this about the high priests, how they were afraid of the crowd. And the authorities, Antipas and whoever else, were afraid of the crowds and so demurred from doing anything to John. In both cases, it was because the crowd held them to be prophets. In both cases the prophets were executed by the authorities, and in neither case did the crowd respond in any violent manner. People resented Antipas for executing John, they said that Antipas had brought the military disaster upon himself, but Josephus doesn’t tell us about any rioting or insurrection. Nor do we hear about anything of the sort in the aftermath of Jesus’ execution. What this tells me is that this was an after-the-fact rationalization, and one probably thought up by Jesus’ followers to discredit the high priests and religious authorities. Ergo, it’s an obvious anachronism that cannot be taken seriously. And note that it didn’t cause them to plot Jesus’ death further, as had happened back in Galilee; it didn’t stiffen the resolve that the cleansing of the Temple had instilled in the high priests. That whole episode seems to be completely forgotten; there were absolutely no apparent ramifications. This also argues for the non-historicity of the event. It happened. It was a discreet thing. It disappears as a plot device. So, no, the high priests were not afraid of the crowd in any way that was particularly centered upon Jesus. They were wary of it in general, certainly, but in the end they had Jesus executed right at the beginning of the Festival. That makes no sense if this was something they were worried about. It implies that either a) they didn’t put Jesus to death; or b) they didn’t fear the crowd’s reprisal at all. And I suppose there is a (c): all of the above.

And the way the Pharisees are brought in and blamed really makes no sense if Josephus’ description is at all accurate. This was not a cohesive corporate body, but a group within the larger body, disparate, composed of individuals, not at all a single entity. Here is a situation that seems to be telling us that the author of this did not truly understand what the Pharisees were. This, in turn, could be forged into an argument that Matthew was a pagan who did not understand the situation in Jerusalem two generations prior to when he wrote. The only problem with this as an argument is that this misunderstanding of the Pharisees did not originate with Matthew. He inherited it from Mark. So what does that imply? Well, that Mark didn’t understand who the Pharisees were, either. Does that mean Mark was a pagan, too? That might be stretching it. I don’t know if the Pharisees were a phenomenon throughout the Jewish world, or if they really only existed in Judea, Galilee, and the vicinity. If the latter, and if Mark lived somewhere outside the Holy Land–which is the consensus–then it’s easy enough to understand how he got this muddled.

Regardless, I do not believe I’ve ever seen this discussed; why did Mark not know this about the Pharisees? And why is it that no modern scholars have puzzled this out? In part because it disrupts the narrative flow of the Passion story and potentially undermines the explanation for Jesus’ death. And thereby it undermines the essential credibility of Mark, and casts a very long shadow of doubt about whether Mark was the John Mark of Acts, which raises questions about whether he got his stuff from Peter. Because Peter should certainly have known a lot of this. Pull a thread, the whole skein unravels. This just kind of indicates how fragile the whole edifice is here, doesn’t it? We really can’t be all that certain about very much. It also may indicate that even Mark was not writing entirely, or perhaps not even primarily for an audience composed of Jews. How were things like this allowed to stand if this was being disseminated to Jews? And that would also prop up the argument that the whole “Messianic Secret” theme in Mark was to explain to pagans why the Jews hadn’t gone over to Jesus en masse.

OK, back to the beginning of the section. The content of the parable is so obvious that even the high priests and Pharisees understand it. This is a far cry from the parables in Mark that Jesus had to explain. And we need to remember that we got a pair of them, this one coming hard on the heels of the parable of the two sons. The two of them form a nicely complementary brace of stories. The first explains how sinners will supersede those who apparently are righteous but don’t actually serve the will of God. This one we just read is has more of a Jewish/pagan theme: the ones who were chosen as the original tenants, who were going to be superseded by the pagans. As such, we know that this story was a much later addition, coming about to explain why so many of the followers of Jesus were pagans rather than Jews. And since the placement of the story here in the run-up to the Passion, we are supposed to understand this as another prop to support the story that the high priests conspired to execute Jesus. 

Support for that theory is getting mighty shaky.

40 Cum ergo venerit dominus vineae, quid faciet agricolis illis? ”.

41 Aiunt illi: “ Malos male perdet et vineam locabit aliis agricolis, qui reddant ei fructum temporibus suis ”.

42 Dicit illis Iesus: “ Numquam legistis in Scripturis:

“Lapidem quem reprobaverunt aedificantes, / hic factus est in caput anguli; / a Domino factum est istud

et est mirabile in oculis nostris” ?

43 Ideo dico vobis quia auferetur a vobis regnum Dei et dabitur genti facienti fructus eius.

44 Et, qui ceciderit super lapidem istum confringetur; super quem vero ceciderit, conteret eum ”.

45 Et cum audissent principes sacerdotum et pharisaei parabolas eius, cognoverunt quod de ipsis diceret;

46 et quaerentes eum tenere, timuerunt turbas, quoniam sicut prophetam eum habebant.

Matthew Chapter 21:18-32

We continue on with the chapter. In the first section, we had the events that became immortalised as Palm Sunday, that ended with the Cleansing of the Temple. We pick the next morning, after Jesus and all spent the night in Bethany.

18 Πρωῒ δὲ ἐπανάγων εἰς τὴν πόλιν ἐπείνασεν.

19 καὶ ἰδὼν συκῆν μίαν ἐπὶ τῆς ὁδοῦ ἦλθεν ἐπ’ αὐτήν, καὶ οὐδὲν εὗρεν ἐν αὐτῇ εἰ μὴ φύλλα μόνον, καὶ λέγει αὐτῇ, Μηκέτι ἐκ σοῦ καρπὸς γένηται εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα. καὶ ἐξηράνθη παραχρῆμα ἡ συκῆ.

20 καὶ ἰδόντες οἱ μαθηταὶ ἐθαύμασαν λέγοντες, Πῶς παραχρῆμα ἐξηράνθη ἡ συκῆ;

21 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁἸησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐὰν ἔχητε πίστιν καὶ μὴ διακριθῆτε, οὐ μόνον τὸ τῆς συκῆς ποιήσετε, ἀλλὰ κἂν τῷ ὄρει τούτῳ εἴπητε, Ἄρθητι καὶ βλήθητι εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν, γενήσεται:

22 καὶ πάντα ὅσα ἂν αἰτήσητε ἐν τῇ προσευχῇ πιστεύοντες λήμψεσθε.

It having become morning, arising he went into the city. (19) And seeing a solitary fig tree from the road, he went to it, and he found nothing on it if not leaves, and he said to it, “May never from you fruit become forever.” And the tree withered immediately. (20) Ands seeing the disciples were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither immediately?” (21) Answering, Jesus said to them, “Amen I say to you, if you have faith and it is not decided against you, not only you will do of the fig tree, but also should you say to that mountain, ‘Get up and throw yourself into the sea’, it will happen. (22) And all so much as you ask in prayer believing, you will receive”.

There a number of problems with this. The story was in Mark, but Matthew has omitted a really significant detail. Mark tells us that there was no fruit on the tree because it was not the season for it. Presumably, the figs ripen later in the summer, or in the fall, like apples or peaches. But it’s Passover season, which is in the spring. Ergo, of course there was no fruit, and Mark told us exactly that: there was no fruit because it was not the season for it. Matthew seems to have forgotten that one very important detail. Now, presumably, one could figure it out if one knows that Passover is in the spring, but what if the audience is mostly pagan, and doesn’t know when Passover falls? In that case, one would come away with rather a different impression of what just went on. 

Of course the omission of the detail is likely not an accident; one suspects it was deliberate. Let’s face it, in Mark’s version Jesus comes off as something like petulant, a bit childish in a way, acting out by cursing the tree for doing what it’s supposed to do. Or, for blaming it for acting in the way it was designed to operate. If the audience hearing these words was largely pagan, and they didn’t know if Passover was in the season for figs, it would be a reasonable assumption that it was fig season; in which case, the tree could be assumed to be barren, so there is no great loss when it withers. In this case, Jesus is only performing some prudent horticultural chore, removing a barren tree.

One other thing just occurred to me. Mark told us that Jesus was looking for figs because he was hungry. That is omitted as well. So we have Matthew re-shaping some of the aspects of the tale here. Jesus is no longer hungry. And he doesn’t go looking for figs in the spring when anyone with half a brain knows that figs don’t ripen until the summer/fall. I’m not going to wander into an apple orchard in April and expect to find apples; why on earth would Jesus expect to find figs? Then, when he doesn’t find them, he curses the tree and causes it to wither. No, all of these are rather unseemly behaviours from the divine son of God. Divine beings don’t get hungry; they don’t expect fruit to be ripe in the spring; and they don’t curse a tree because it hasn’t defied nature and produced fruit out of season. All of these are just things that the Messiah should not do. So Jesus doesn’t do any of them in Matthew’s version of the story.

Given this, we could ask why Matthew includes the story at all. There is probably no good answer for that. The main thing seems to be because, overall, Matthew is loathe to jettison anything that Mark has produced. There are a few things, like Jesus’ first healing of the man with the withered hand in the synagogue in Caphernaum, which was Jesus’ first real public act in Mark. And there are a few others, but very few others. Matthew used something like 80 or 90% of Mark’s content. This, I think, provides some useful insight into the power of Mark’s narrative, and the effect it had on the followers of Jesus. The reluctance to remove things indicates that Mark’s story was pretty well known, and that things could not be omitted without very good reason. In turn, I believe, this helps explain why Matthew felt another gospel was necessary. Mark gave us the events, but his Jesus was all-too-human; he was not decisively divine. He did things like get hungry and curse trees for not bearing fruit out of season–after he went looking for fruit at the wrong time of the year. Matthew had to smooth out some of those aspects of Jesus’ nature. A human Jesus was no longer appropriate for the more elevated status that Jesus had taken, and so Matthew had to address that problem and remove the doubts about who–and what–Jesus was.

This latter question is amply demonstrated by the fate of the tree. And here, too, Matthew differs slightly from Mark. The former has, once again, compressed Mark’s narrative, compacting it into a shorter time-sequence. In the original, Jesus cursed the tree in the morning. Then, when they return to Bethany in the evening, only then do they see that the tree has withered. Here, it happens instantaneously. This is an ample demonstration of Jesus’ sheer power: he can cause a tree to wither and die simply by saying the word. The question then becomes, if Matthew wishes to downplay the miraculous element of Jesus’ ministry, why emphasize it in this way? It’s really difficult to answer this with any degree of certainty, or even to propose a semi-reasonable theory. I suspect it has something to do with the reasons why Matthew is very reluctant to flat-out omit anything in Mark. Given that he has to include the story, he chooses to compress the time frame, which means emphasizing Jesus’ power to a certain degree. 

But the power isn’t just power for its own sake. Rather, it leads to what is nowadays called a teachable moment. Amazing as the display of power is, however, this is something available to all of us, if we but have faith. And here, perhaps, is the crux of the problem that Matthew has with Jesus’ miracles. Now, we perhaps court danger by taking Jesus’ words literally, that we actually, in the real, physical world, can actually move a mountain. Is this, truly, a description of reality? Or is it simply hyperbole, an exaggeration meant to make a point? I think the answer is “yes”. It’s both of these things. I think there was a sense in which this was taken seriously and literally, but in a very spiritual sense. This is, after all, part of what the essence of a religion is, the idea that while we take it on the mundane plane, but simultaneously project it into spiritual Truth, which is to say a symbol of something beyond. In all hagiographical literature, starting with Acts, one thing that the saints all do is suspend the laws of nature. In fact, this is one of the criteria the Catholics use to for canonization: whether the candidate can be credited with actual miracles.

18 Mane autem revertens in civitatem, esuriit.

19 Et videns fici arborem unam secus viam, venit ad eam; et nihil invenit in ea nisi folia tantum et ait illi: “Numquam ex te fructus nascatur in sempiternum”. Et arefacta est continuo ficulnea.

20 Et videntes discipuli mirati sunt dicentes: “Quomodo continuo aruit ficulnea?”.

21 Respondens autem Iesus ait eis: “Amen dico vobis: Si habueritis fidem et non haesitaveritis, non solum de ficulnea facietis, sed et si monti huic dixeritis: “Tolle et iacta te in mare”, fiet.

22 Et omnia, quaecumque petieritis in oratione credentes, accipietis”.

23 Καὶ ἐλθόντος αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸ ἱερὸν προσῆλθον αὐτῷ διδάσκοντι οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι τοῦ λαοῦ λέγοντες, Ἐν ποίᾳ ἐξουσίᾳ ταῦτα ποιεῖς; καὶ τίς σοι ἔδωκεν τὴν ἐξουσίαν ταύτην;

And they having come to the Temple, they came to him teaching the high priests and the elders of the people saying, “In what sort of authority do you do these things? And who to you gave this authority?” 

First, there does not seem to be a serious conflict here. Yes, there is an edge of tension, the high priests and elders are a bit defensive. Recall, however, that, supposedly, the day before, this man came in and knocked over tables and chairs and put a damper on the commercial activity that benefitted these same priests. With all that, it seems that they should be more than a bit miffed. It seems more likely that they would have had Jesus arrested on sight. Or, it seems like he should have been arrested the day before, when he had perpetrated the acts. And the line about “being afraid of the uproar of the people” doesn’t really ring true when we consider that Jesus caused so much commotion. I suspect that a lot of those attending the festival may have applauded Jesus’ arrest for disturbing the peace in such a raucous manner. After all, they were there to perform the requisite sacrifice, and Jesus was preventing them from doing this. I suppose that it may have been one thing to have the Temple guards carry him off, and quite another to have the Romans come in and do it. Were there Temple guards? Given the high level of commercial activity, one has to believe there had to be, especially since the presence of pagans in the Temple was problematic at best.

So, all in all, the probability that the whole cleansing of the Temple actually happened seems to be pretty low. So how did the story start? And how did it gain credibility? As we saw with Albert Schweitzer, there is a strong compulsion to believe that Jesus did something to warrant being arrested and executed. EP Sandars has posited this as the most likely reason this happened. And there is a certain appeal of logic to this; but just because we want it to be so doesn’t make it so. We have to go back to Paul: either he didn’t know, or he knew and didn’t tell us. And if he knew and didn’t tell us, he either thought it was irrelevant or embarrassing. So that is three possibilities; two of them indicate that the reason was trivial. If Paul didn’t know, chances are the cause had been something non-momentous, something pretty low-level, like spitting on the sidewalk. Or, if Paul knew and thought it was trivial, this comes to much the same thing as not knowing. In either case, the motive for Jesus’ arrest simply didn’t amount to much worth recounting. That is, he was executed for spitting on the sidewalk. And let’s recall that the gospels really don’t point to anything as the cause, either. Oh, they insinuate the jealousy of the high priests, and the Pharisees, and several other groups, and they pin it, ultimately, on Joseph Caiaphas because he thought Jesus was a problem. For whatever reason.

All this vagueness and innuendo, all of it points to a reason that was not particularly noteworthy. No one knew because the reason was so minor. It never made the headlines. It just wasn’t talked about because it didn’t seem to be a big deal at the time. It only became one when Jesus was raised from the dead. But even then, the reason Jesus was executed wasn’t important enough for Paul to give us an explanation, or even mention it. Because it didn’t matter. All of this indicates, I believe, that the reason Jesus was executed had little or nothing to do with his ministry.

I say this because the way the question is framed, it has a very theoretical feel to it. And that is–Spoiler Alert!–borne out in subsequent verses. But let’s stop a minute to let the question sink in: by whose authority? Who gave the authority? Those are interesting, but most interesting is “to do the things that you do?” Note that this isn’t about the things he’s done, or that he did. Coming the day after the Cleansing of the Temple, one would expect this to be “who gave you the authority to do what you did?” That is much more specific. The vagueness with which the question is framed, I think, is additional proof that the episode of the Temple cleansing did not really happen. The question is much better suited to sort of a debate in the synagogue. As for the authority, let’s read on.

23 Et cum venisset in templum, accesserunt ad eum docentem principes sacerdotum et seniores populi dicentes: “In qua potestate haec facis? Et quis tibi dedit hanc potestatem?”.

24 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Ἐρωτήσω ὑμᾶς κἀγὼ λόγον ἕνα, ὃν ἐὰν εἴπητέ μοι κἀγὼ ὑμῖν ἐρῶ ἐν ποίᾳ ἐξουσίᾳ ταῦτα ποιῶ:

25 τὸ βάπτισμα τὸ Ἰωάννου πόθεν ἦν; ἐξ οὐρανοῦ ἢ ἐξ ἀνθρώπων; οἱ δὲ διελογίζοντο ἐν ἑαυτοῖς λέγοντες, Ἐὰν εἴπωμεν, Ἐξ οὐρανοῦ, ἐρεῖ ἡμῖν, Διὰ τί οὖν οὐκ ἐπιστεύσατε αὐτῷ;

26 ἐὰν δὲ εἴπωμεν, Ἐξ ἀνθρώπων, φοβούμεθα τὸν ὄχλον, πάντες γὰρ ὡς προφήτην ἔχουσιν τὸν Ἰωάννην.

27 καὶ ἀποκριθέντες τῷ Ἰησοῦ εἶπαν, Οὐκ οἴδαμεν. ἔφη αὐτοῖς καὶ αὐτός, Οὐδὲ ἐγὼ λέγω ὑμῖν ἐν ποίᾳ ἐξουσίᾳ ταῦτα ποιῶ.

Answering, Jesus said to them, “I will ask you and I will give one reason, which if you answer me and I will answer in which authority these things I do. (25) The baptism of John from whence (did it come)? From the sky or from men?” They conferred amongst themselves, saying, “If we say from the sky, you will say to us ‘through what therefore did you not believe him?’ (26) If we say from men, we fear the crowd, for all as a prophet hold John. (27) And answering to Jesus they said, “We do not know”. And he said to them, “I will not say to you in which authority these things I do”.

The first point is relatively minor, but it’s worth noting. Matthew almost always pluralizes it to “the heavens”. Mark, OTOH, used the singular form, which could be–perhaps should be–translated as “the sky”. Most translations render it as ‘heaven’, with a lower case ‘h’. It’s just the sort of thing with which to be careful. “Heaven”, even in lower case, is a very loaded word for us. In the ancient world there was a general sense that god/God did live in the sky, and that is present in the meaning of the word Mark and Matthew use. Even so, ‘heaven’ has too many connotations of Pearly Gates and angels playing harps. It should be avoided. Maybe “the celestial realm”?

The next item is the mention of fear of crowd. This was given as a reason why the high priests had to be wary about having Jesus arrested. They were afraid that the Festival crowd, which was often unruly at best, would find this to be an outrage, and so would provoke a riot. Supposedly this is why Jesus wasn’t arrested when he cleared the Temple. Bear in mind, however, that this is exactly what they ultimately did according to the story. They arrested Jesus and had him executed just as the Festival was ready to begin. And yet, there was no riot, nor any disturbance at all, really. The execution happened, and everyone went about their business. Josephus mentioned nothing especially noteworthy, just that there was a pervasive tension in the city during the Festival in general.

With those issues out of the way, we can get to the main ideas presented. These are, the importance of John, that he was a prophet, and that at least some thought that he had the sanction of heaven, even if he wasn’t divine himself. Of course, being a prophet entails having the blessing and the direction of heaven. That’s what makes someone a prophet. Of course, bystanders and onlookers were told by the disciples that Jesus was a prophet as he was entering Jerusalem on (what came to be called) Palm Sunday. Is this a coincidence, that the two of them are labeled prophets within such a short stretch of text? What is doubly interesting about this double use off the term is that Mark does not say that Jesus was called a prophet, except in the run-up to the Transfiguration, just prior to Peter’s proclamation, when Mark reports that “others” are saying that Jesus is a prophet. So, on the one hand, we have Matthew adding to Mark by making sure we know that Jesus is divine, but on the other we have Matthew confusing the issue by having called Jesus a prophet during the triumphal entry. Or was that designation designed to imply that not all of Jesus’ followers quite grasped Jesus’ identity?

This is neither an idle nor a rhetorical question. Rather, it has to do with the overall scope and plan of this gospel. As mentioned repeatedly, Matthew’s handling of the Q material in the Sermon on the Mount is called “masterful”, among other glowing adjectives. My problem is, how do we reconcile this masterful plan with issues like “editorial fatigue”, in which he loses track of what he’s saying, changing verb tenses or the number and/or person of the main verb, or just generally muddles what are two separate versions of the story; he started out changing Mark, but half-way through he lost his train of thought and went back to copying verbatim–more or less. Frankly, these seem to be pretty much incompatible traits. 

The point? This is a great demonstration of how badly scholars want Luke and Matthew to be independent sources. That would mean that Q has to be real. That is the point. Why? With Q we can cling to the chance, however small, that something in Matthew or Luke goes back to Jesus. That is the goal. With Luke dependent on Matthew, then Q becomes unnecessary, and highly improbable. So we have to invent this genius of Matthew so that Luke’s treatment of the Q material becomes substandard, and so Luke could not have possibly read Matthew’s “masterful” handling of the Q material. So things like this, in which Matthew shows himself to be internally inconsistent, or at least less-than-thorough, are very damaging to the “masterful” skill of Matthew as an editor. 

That’s why I’m so insistent on bringing them to the fore.

As a final note, let’s take a step back and think about what actually happened in this narrative, about the actual exchange that Matthew reports as having occurred between Jesus and his interlocutors. On the one hand, there’s an aroma of “too clever by half” wafting about it, the sort of witty exchange that most people only think of ten minutes later. On the other, it’s not at all impossible that something like this truly did happen, in whatever attenuated or altered form. One aspect that strikes me as very real is the ambivalence of the Temple authorities towards John. Generally in such circumstances, the reverence for John’s holiness would have increased as the time of his death receded into the past. As someone recently executed, it would be difficult for anyone in a position of authority to admit to too much admiration for an enemy of the state. But, with the passing of time, as passions about John cooled, and as his followers drifted off to follow others, the danger would diminish and it would be more acceptable to talk about John with approval.  Given that the high priests are willing to admit that it was possible that John had the sanction of heaven, we would suppose that some time had passed since John’s death. Neither gospel is particularly clear on when this happened; only that John was arrested at some point early in Jesus’ ministry, seemingly fairly shortly after Jesus had been baptized by John.

Now, while doing some routine checking of sources to see if there was any evidence to indicate when John might have died, I came across something that really messes with the whole chronology of Jesus’ ministry and death. Josephus pretty much agrees with the gospels that John was executed because he disapproved of Herod Antipas’ (0r Antipater) marriage to Herodias, who had been married to Antipas’ brother, who was, conveniently, also named Herod. The brother is referred to as Herod II. The problem arises when we note that Antipas married Herodias sometime around 34 CE. So that provides a terminus post quem for John’s execution. That is, if Jesus was executed after John, then Jesus’ death had to occur sometime between 34 and 36 CE. The latter date is when Antipas was defeated by the father of the wife Antipas divorced to marry Herodias. Josephus tells us that many Jews considered Antipas’ defeat to be God’s way of punishing Antipas for having executed John. 

However, Jesus was traditionally executed sometime before this; the traditional date is somewhere around 33, based on Luke’s chronology. And, most scholarship sort of assumes that Jesus’ death occurred earlier in the decade than the period 34-36. If John wasn’t executed until, say, 35, then Jesus’ death more likely happened in the last half of the decade. There would be all sorts of implications to be derived from this. This question is far outside the scope of the task at hand; but what I find absolutely astonishing is that I’ve never come across this in any of the books I’ve been reading about Jesus, his death, etc. This is kind of a big deal, but NT scholarship is largely silent on the matter, despite it being readily available on Wikipedia. Pilate’s term of office ended in 36; Jesus, presumably was killed before that; the new chronology need not affect the date of Jesus’ death, but it does have serious ramifications for the relationship of John and Jesus. Much as I’d like to hash this out now, I really need to leave it. Suffice it to say that one possibility is that this exchange took place later in the decade, after Jesus was also dead. Perhaps this conversation took place between the high priests and James, brother of the lord.

24 Respondens autem Iesus dixit illis: “ Interrogabo vos et ego unum sermonem, quem si dixeritis mihi, et ego vobis dicam, in qua potestate haec facio:

25 Baptismum Ioannis unde erat? A caelo an ex hominibus? ”. At illi cogitabant inter se dicentes: “ Si dixerimus: “E caelo”, dicet nobis: “Quare ergo non credidistis illi?”;

26 si autem dixerimus: “Ex hominibus”, timemus turbam; omnes enim habent Ioannem sicut prophetam”.

27 Et respondentes Iesu dixerunt: “Nescimus”. Ait illis et ipse: “Nec ego dico vobis in qua potestate haec facio”.

28 Τί δὲ ὑμῖν δοκεῖ; ἄνθρωπος εἶχεν τέκνα δύο. καὶ προσελθὼν τῷ πρώτῳ εἶπεν, Τέκνον, ὕπαγε σήμερον ἐργάζου ἐν τῷ ἀμπελῶνι.

29 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Οὐ θέλω, ὕστερον δὲ μεταμεληθεὶς ἀπῆλθεν.

30 προσελθὼν δὲ τῷ ἑτέρῳ εἶπεν ὡσαύτως. ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Ἐγώ, κύριε: καὶ οὐκ ἀπῆλθεν.

31 τίς ἐκ τῶν δύο ἐποίησεν τὸ θέλημα τοῦ πατρός; λέγουσιν, Ὁ πρῶτος. λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οἱ τελῶναι καὶ αἱ πόρναι προάγουσιν ὑμᾶς εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ.

32 ἦλθεν γὰρ Ἰωάννης πρὸς ὑμᾶς ἐν ὁδῷ δικαιοσύνης, καὶ οὐκ ἐπιστεύσατε αὐτῷ: οἱ δὲ τελῶναι καὶ αἱ πόρναι ἐπίστευσαν αὐτῷ: ὑμεῖς δὲ ἰδόντες οὐδὲ μετεμελήθητε ὕστερον τοῦ πιστεῦσαι αὐτῷ.

“How does this seem to you? A man has two sons. And going to the first/oldest he says, ‘Son, get up today and go work in the vineyard’. (29) But he (the son) answering says, ‘I don’t want to’. Later, having had a change of intent, he went.

(30) “Going to the other, he (the father) spoke in the same way. He (the son) answering, said, ‘I (will go), lord’. And he did not go.

(31) “Which of the two did the will of the father?” They said, “The first”. Jesus said to them, “Amen I say to you, that the tax collectors and the prostitutes will precede you into the kingdom of God. (32) For John came to you on the road of righteousness, and you did not believe him. The tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. You seeing did not repent later of your faith in him”.

This whole thing is another pagans superseding Jews story, I think. Or is it? The parable is not in Mark, so it almost certainly doesn’t date back to Jesus. Otherwise, I might have been tempted to see this as an early version of the superseding process; but, rather than pagans superseding Jews, it was the sinners superseding the righteous. But that theme seems a bit too primitive; by this point in the development of Christian doctrine, one would expect to be passed that point and onto the pagans. After all, I’ve been talking about this for pretty much the whole of Matthew, and a good chunk of Mark as well. So the theme gives me pause. One possible solution that comes to mind is that the actor in the story is not Jesus, but perhaps James; however, I’m not sure that really fits, either. Without any of these other features, we’re kind of left with taking the story at face value: it was meant to inform us that the uptight righteous folk are out on their ear, while the sinners have the key to the front door.

And as I’ve been learning more about Judaism, and in particular the content of the HS, I’ve been finding that more and more of what I thought were “Christian” traits are actually a big part of the morality and social message of the HS. The distinction between Christian and Judaic morality is not very distinct. There is one thing, however, that does set the message of Jesus apart from that of the HS. It’s the message of inclusion; or, really, the message of “the last shall be first”, the idea that Jesus came for the sinners and not The Holy. This is driven home most effectively, I think, by the story of the Prodigal Son. Above all others, I think, that one summarizes the message of Jesus. And this parable is part of that progression. It’s not the high priests that are doing the will of the father, by saying “yes” but doing “no”. Rather, it’s those who rebel at first, but later have a change of heart, or a change of will, or a change of mind.

So, probably nothing exactly earth-shattering here. This is most likely a story made up some time after Jesus died. Perhaps James had something to do with it, perhaps not. But it was made up, I think, fully consistent with many of the principles that I think do date back to Jesus: the welcoming of the sinners, the idea of personal–rather than corporate which was the Jewish norm as the Chosen People–repentance, the idea that a doctor is not needed by the healthy, but by the sick. At the moment, I think that is the crux of Jesus’ message, the aspect of Jesus message that made him stand out from the others, what set him apart from John’s message of repentance. It’s impossible to know for sure, but my conception is that John’s message was conventional to a large degree; that of Jesus wasn’t. But this gets tricky. Think back to John baptizing; the “brood of vipers” analogy is not in Mark; it was added later. Theoretically, this would imply that Jesus’ message may not have been directed quite so directly at the sinners at the outset, but that it had become so by the time Matthew wrote. This being the case, it’s tempting to see the hand of James again, as someone concerned with the poor, and by extension the unwanted, the outcast, the sinners. Perhaps this latter part of the message only came after James, which is an interesting thought and topic for speculation. But probably no more. 

Regardless, this concern for sinners was truly a novel message, one that set this group apart from pretty much all the others. With this message, the new religion could–and did–appeal to a wide range of people, and so to a lot of people.

28 “Quid autem vobis videtur? Homo quidam habebat duos filios. Et accedens ad primum dixit: “Fili, vade hodie, operare in vinea”.

29 Ille autem respondens ait: “Nolo”; postea autem paenitentia motus abiit.

30 Accedens autem ad alterum dixit similiter. At ille respondens ait: “Eo, domine”; et non ivit.

31 Quis ex duobus fecit voluntatem patris? ”. Dicunt: “Primus”. Dicit illis Iesus: “ Amen dico vobis: Publicani et meretrices praecedunt vos in regnum Dei.

32 Venit enim ad vos Ioannes in via iustitiae, et non credidistis ei; publicani autem et meretrices crediderunt ei. Vos autem videntes nec paenitentiam habuistis postea, ut crederetis ei.