Monthly Archives: April 2016

A Cursory Review of Bart Ehrman’s “Jesus Before The Gospels”

The book in question is the latest of Ehrman’s works. In a nutshell, the book is not without merit, but it’s not exactly a must-read either.

The main focus of the book is to discuss human memory, and how it relates to oral traditions that are passed on for any length of time without the benefit of being written down. Much of what he discusses is not exactly new; perhaps a half-decade ago the New Yorker had an article discussing the latest findings on eyewitness testimony. But having it put into this context is definitely a good thing. To make a long story short, eyewitness testimony is extremely unreliable. Just because someone was on the scene and saw what happened does not make them a reliable witness. Obviously, this has enormous implications for the criminal justice system because eyewitness testimony is often the evidence that clinches a conviction. Unfortunately, any number of people who have been convicted on such evidence were, in fact, innocent. The overturning of convictions based on DNA evidence has shown how unreliable eyewitness testimony is. People don’t always see what they think they did, of course, but the real problem is that human memory is very often fallacious.

That is the crux of the book: that we cannot trust memories. Study after study, dating back a century or even more, has shown that memory just does not work very well most of the time. More, it can be influenced significantly by outside suggestion, like the questions of a prosecuting attorney. A great test of this is to talk to siblings about something that happened as children, and different members of the family will remember very different events. And it’s not just the interpretation of events, but the basic facts. We were in the blue Chevy. No, it was the red Ford. I was wearing my cowboy boots. No, this was the year before you got them. Et cetera. But that’s not all: one member of the discussion can introduce something absolutely wrong, something completely fabricated, and other members of the discussion will often come to accept this as fact. Then, when these other members recount the story, they incorporate these fabrications into the story and will swear up and down that the fabrication happened, and that s/he can remember it as plain as day.

Of course these new revelations about the evidence of memory carries a tremendous impact for the likely historicity of the events of Jesus’ life. Since there was no written record, and since the stories of Jesus were passed down orally for forty years, these “memories” are very likely to have been corrupted, distorted, or flat-out fabricated somewhere along the way. In fact, taking Ehrman’s arguments to their logical conclusion, there is approximately zero probability that any of the stories of Jesus happened in any way even vaguely resembling the way they’re described. If they happened at all.

Before anyone brings up the whole “oral tradition” thing, Ehrman deals with that as well. It turns out that oral traditions–think The Iliad–are not all that reliable in the way that we usually think of the term. We’ve mentioned family events, and how differently they are remembered. Long stories passed down orally have an enormous amount of variation in each telling. Different anthropologists have sat with different groups of oral story tellers on numerous occasions and have come to an interesting conclusion. When a long story is related orally, the same storyteller can–and will, and does–tell the same story differently on different occasions. On every different occasion. The different variants have been recorded and compared and they are not only different, but the length of the story can vary with each telling. Sometimes the second telling is twice as long–or half as long–as the first. And yet, the storyteller will insist that the story is absolutely the same. The conclusion is that, in an oral tradition, “reciting” a story is synonymous with “composing” the story as the teller goes along. This strikes us as incredible. Impossible, even, but there it is. Anyone familiar with Homer knows that Achilles is fleet of foot, or that Odysseos is a wily sacker of cities, or that the child of morning is rosy-fingered Dawn*. More, these epithets are repeated dozens of times throughout the work. What these rote phrases do is give the poet a moment to reflect and decide what comes next. The implication of all this is that the idea of a single, unvarying story is a creation of the written word. It does not exist in oral traditions. Anyone who’s actually read primary sources of Greek myth realizes that there is no one “gospel truth” text for a lot of myths. They can and do vary from telling to telling. The playwrights, perhaps Euripides in particular, did not feel compelled to tell the story the way that Hesiod had told it.

[ * As an aside, each figure usually has two or three such epithets. The poet uses different ones to fit different aspects of the metre. So sometimes Achilles is fleet of foot; at others, he is the son of Peleus. ]

So we have a toxic combination of bad memories combined with unstable  oral traditions. This is why we might question whether we can trust anything. This is a very useful thing to keep in mind when reading the NT, the basis of which is stories told (presumably) by eyewitnesses and passed down for a few decades before being written down. Based on Ehrman’s argument, or his evidence, we cannot be sure any of it happened.

This is a tad disconcerting, to say the least.

One thing that I found interesting is the way he describes that we see the past through the lens of the present. Thus, some of the stories told about Jesus are actually more about the group telling the story 10 or 20 or 30 years later than it is about the time of Jesus. Ehrman uses the example of John’s virulent antipathy towards “the Jews”. This was, he reasons, probably a story told by a group that had come into serious and protracted conflict with “the Jews”. That is, it dates from a time when Christians had Jews has become pretty much separated, which necessarily means the stories date from a time decades after Jesus. Just so, the stories of the Destruction–the so-called apocalyptic teachings of Jesus–actually date to a time after the destruction of Jerusalem in the Jewish war. Odd, but Ehrman doesn’t draw that conclusion about the apocalyptic stories. I wonder why.

There are two main flaws in the book. The first is that, while it clocks in at 295 pages, he could have gotten the same point across in perhaps half that time. He gives five examples when two would have sufficed, that sort of thing. This is annoying, but only minimally so. It means I skimmed over pages at a time. So this is minor.

The real problem is in the approach he takes. He tells us repeatedly that the memories, as recorded, are likely unreliable; but he never, ever, not once steps back to ask if the people telling the stories were at all concerned that the facts may not have been accurate. It never seems to occur to him that factual accuracy may not have been the point of the authors of the NT. The authors of the gospels were writing neither history or nor biography; it was hagiography. The failure to understand this, or at least acknowledge that the possibility that this possibility exists, is a major flaw in my opinion. He is examining the text on terms that may not have been important to the task the authors were setting out to accomplish.

In the end, it comes down to a difference in philosophy between Dr Ehrman and me. He is bringing in as much evidence as he can to perform valid source criticism. The gods know that people like Martin Luther and others have been psych0-analyzed a hundred times in order to get at their motivations so we can explain why they really did what they did. In a lot of cases, perhaps particularly in the case of Luther, the why didn’t matter so much, largely because he didn’t do or say anything all that different from what others had said before him. The difference was that the world was ready to listen to Luther when it hadn’t been willing to listen to Jan Huss, for example. And the difference in motivation between Peter Valdes (founder of the Waldensian heretics) was not very different from that of St Francis of Assisi, yet one became a heretic and the other a saint because the world perceived them differently (an oversimplification, of course, but general statements are always oversimplifications, and pretty much by definition). Source criticism is crucial to good historical method, to the point of being sine qua non. However, in this case, it seems that perhaps Dr. Ehrman should have paused a moment to ask if this method, as applied in this set of circumstances, is a useful tool.

Taking his implications to their logical conclusion, we must infer that nothing in the NT has any real basis in fact. Now, one could argue that this is not only a valid inference (it likely is), but that it’s also a true inference. Are we prepared to say that?

Then the point becomes that, prepared or not, we are compelled, by weight of evidence, to make that statement; however, I have to disagree. This may be true logically, but it’s not necessarily true in a real sense. In the course of reading Matthew, the question of whether something can trace back to Jesus has become increasingly prominent in our method of examining the text. Since the technique is mine, I obviously believe that it’s  not only a valid line of inquiry, but also a fruitful one. And the results have been that much–if not most–of what we have read in Matthew seemingly does not trace back to Jesus. Ehrman would agree with this, and in the book presents examples of situations that almost certainly originate in post-resurrection conditions. There are some sayings, however, where this is not necessarily true. The Parable of the Sower contains nothing that requires it to be post-Jesus. Did Jesus speak the words that we read? Perhaps not, perhaps most likely not. Did he use the analogy of the sower? Possibly. Did he speak about the kingdom? Probably. Or, it’s probable that he probably did.

In some ways this is being way too critical of Ehrman and his method. He provides an excellent caveat about the trustworthiness–or otherwise–of what we are told in the gospels. We do well to keep this in mind. As such, the book is very well written and very effective. The accounts are not trustworthy at face value. But the book is, perhaps, a starting place rather than a final destination. To get to the latter, we have to apply the principles of historical criticism. Fortunately, that is what we’ve been doing right along. It is gratifying to note that, in those examples he cites that we have covered, he has corroborated my analysis. So we’re definitely on the right track here.


Matthew Chapter 23:1-12

The rubric for this chapter in one of my Bibles is “Seven Woes”. This is a series of Jesus describing the sorrow that will come to certain groups based their behaviour. In many cases, this behaviour was, until the time of Jesus, considered righteous and admirable. This section was not in Mark, so this is new territory for us. And it is in Luke, so this is properly Q material, assuming Q existed. And this is what Q is held to be: things Jesus said. This chapter continues the longest stretch of Jesus talking in the Gospel of Matthew, one that is significantly longer than the two-point-five chapters of the Sermon on the Mount.

1 Τότε ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐλάλησεν τοῖς ὄχλοις καὶ τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ

2 λέγων, Ἐπὶ τῆς Μωϋσέως καθέδρας ἐκάθισαν οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι.

3 πάντα οὖν ὅσα ἐὰν εἴπωσιν ὑμῖν ποιήσατε καὶ τηρεῖτε, κατὰ δὲ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν μὴ ποιεῖτε: λέγουσιν γὰρ καὶ οὐ ποιοῦσιν.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, (2) saying, “Upon the seat of Moses sit the scribes and the Pharisees. (3) So all so much if they say to you do and watch over, but according to the their works do not do. For they say and do not do.  

First up for criticism are the scribes and the Pharisees. It’s interesting to note that Jesus says the Pharisees “sit on the chair of Moses”. The word for “chair” is “kathedra”, transliterated into Latin as “cathedra”, which is the root of  “cathedral”. A cathedral is the church of an episcopal see, because it was originally, and literally, the “chair” of the bishop. To see the use of the term chair here as reminiscent of, or alluding to, a bishop’s chair is wildly anachronistic. Such things were not implemented for a good century after these events. Now, this creates a connexion in my mind. You may want to put on your tin-foil hats for this one; it’s a great conspiracy theory. It is not entirely clear when members of the Christian community came to be designated as bishops, and when this term came to mean something like the specific office we think of today. It seems that the term was not in use when Clement wrote his letters in the late 1st Century. So there were no bishops yet when this was written. The thing is, the bishop existed well before he had a specific see, and well before he had a cathedra. Was this word inserted later, perhaps by the bishop of Rome, or a scribe working there? Remember, the “thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my assembly” passage is only found in Matthew. Just so, the word cathedra in this context is also found only in Matthew. Since Matthew was long considered the first gospel–hence its placement in the NT–did those in Rome doctor the text a little bit? But only Matthew, because it was considered the original? If you know anything about the subsequent history of the Church, this kind of massaging of the text was not uncommon, sometimes ending up in outright forgery as with the Donation of Constantine.

This is wildly speculative. But, stranger things have happened.

As for grammar, we’ve discussed the use of <<δὲ>> several times. In textbooks, the construction is <<μενδὲ>>, which is translated as “on the one hand…on the other”. But this formal construction is not used all that often, but the <<δὲ>> is used all the time. It’s generally used as a conjunction, and can be translated as “in contrast”, or even as “and” or “but”. Sometimes there’s no value to translating it at all because it just sticks itself into the English in an awkward sort of way. In the middle of Verse 3, however, it’s crucial, because it sets up the “but” which contrasts what the Pharisees say and what they do. On the one hand, this is a minor grammatical point. On the other, it shows that one has to pay attention even to particles when attempting to translate.

More, I do not understand how Jesus can say that the Pharisees sit in the chair of Moses. We discussed the cathedral implication and how wrong that is. And yet, that is the image of this part of Verse 2. I will fully grant that I am reading it this way because of the 2,000 years of conditioning that has led me to understand “cathedral” in a certain way. But what else does–can–“the chair of Moses” mean? Even if we take this as figurative–which we must, since there was no chair of Moses–that is what the passage implies. It resonates because we have the idea of a bishop sitting in a cathedral chair. How else does this make sense? And note, the word “kathedra” is only used two other times in the NT, and both times it is used for the chairs of the money-changers that Jesus overturns while cleansing the Temple. This particular expression is not in Luke. There is no passage in Luke corresponding to this. It’s strictly Matthew.

 The real issue is that the Pharisees did not occupy chairs. They were not authorities at all; they were a particular view of Judaism, perhaps a sect would be proper, but probably nothing so distinct as the division between Catholics and Baptists. Given Paul, perhaps they were the ones who did a lot of the ancillary functions around the Temple, as Paul was a Pharisee who was carrying out persecutions of the nascent church. So taking all this into consideration, perhaps my suggestion is not so wild after all?

Finally, we have to say something about Jesus’ message. There’s nothing unique about it, but he’s calling them hypocrites, who do not do what they tell others to do. This certainly can resonate; most of us are all-too aware of people like this. Even religious people.

1 Tunc Iesus locutus est ad turbas et ad discipulos suos

2 dicens: “ Super cathedram Moysis sederunt scribae et pharisaei.

3 Omnia ergo, quaecumque dixerint vobis, facite et servate; secundum opera vero eorum nolite facere: dicunt enim et non faciunt.

4 δεσμεύουσιν δὲ φορτία βαρέα [καὶ δυσβάστακτα] καὶ ἐπιτιθέασιν ἐπὶ τοὺς ὤμους τῶν ἀνθρώπων, αὐτοὶ δὲ τῷ δακτύλῳ αὐτῶν οὐ θέλουσιν κινῆσαι αὐτά.

“They bind heavy burdens [and intolerable ] and put (these) upon the shoulders of men, but they do not wish to move themselves even by a finger ( i.e., won’t lift a finger to help ). 

Not a whole lot to be said about this. It’s all pretty straightforward. The question, I suppose, is how do they do this? The complaint is that they sit in chairs and load burdens on people. By what authority? Ought we infer that the Pharisees were the class that populated the positions of authority? Perhaps most of the high priests came from the group of Pharisees. Actually, that might be a reasonable inference, and would explain why they are treated as they are. But then, the Sadducees come in for a certain amount of abuse, too, and these two groups had different views of religion. Were they working together? Or was it that the Pharisees took the lead in persecuting the new offshoot of Judaism, so they sort became remembered as the generic bad guys by later followers of Jesus? I would suspect it’s something like that. 

4 Alligant autem onera gravia et importabilia et imponunt in umeros hominum, ipsi autem digito suo nolunt ea movere.

5 πάντα δὲ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν ποιοῦσιν πρὸς τὸ θεαθῆναι τοῖς ἀνθρώποις: πλατύνουσιν γὰρ τὰ φυλακτήρια αὐτῶν καὶ μεγαλύνουσιν τὰ κράσπεδα,

6 φιλοῦσιν δὲ τὴν πρωτοκλισίαν ἐν τοῖς δείπνοις καὶ τὰς πρωτοκαθεδρίας ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς

7 καὶ τοὺς ἀσπασμοὺς ἐν ταῖς ἀγοραῖς καὶ καλεῖσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων, Ῥαββί.

“But all their works they do towards to have been seen by men. (Everything do is for the purpose of being seen by others; i.e. for show) For they widen their safeguards and make large the tassels (of their garments). (6) They love the first couches in the dinners and the first chairs (“proto-kathedra” in the synagogues. (7) And the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi’.  

The bit about widening their safeguards and making large their tassels requires a bit of interpretation. These are words that, used here, do not quite mean what their standard definition says in Liddell & Scott. However, L&S do describe how these words came to be understood in this context. The “safeguard” (which is based on the actual meaning of the word “phylacterion”) was, according to L&S, a a piece of parchment with a bit of the law written on it worn as a headband by people praying. OK. So the Pharisees widen these so they are conspicuous, so the can be seen, for show. As in showing off. And the tassels on the garments being enlarged is seemingly a bit of frippery done to be ostentatious. And note: the first chairs in the synagogues. Here, it’s a compound word, so it doesn’t show up on the lists of where “cathedra” is used. Now, one wonders, are these the chairs to which we referred in the passage above? Where I was seeing a dastardly plot by the bishop of Rome? They could be, and I could easily be wrong in my speculation. In fact, I would retract it outright if we had any sense that the Pharisees sat in their first chairs in the synagogue and connived to increase burdens on those poorer than them. I don’t know that they did, but then I don’t know that they didn’t. The other thing in my favor is that Jesus didn’t say they sat in their “chairs”. He said the sat in “the chair of Moses”. Greek has a separate word for “throne” (basically = “thronos”), so it’s not like there isn’t a different word that could have been used. 

So, overall, this is a dicey call, either way. All things considered, there is a better than even chance that I’m wrong in my speculation, and that this wasn’t inserted by–or at the behest of–the bishop of Rome.

Oh well. However, to be even close to 50/50 in wild speculation isn’t too shabby. 

As for the content, this is of a piece with the passage above, grinding the Pharisees into the dustbin of disrespect, consigning them to eternal vilification. They are showy, ostentatious, pompous, and insincere. And hypocrites. The question is, were they really that bad? Paul was proud of being a Pharisee, and he proclaimed this as something that made him special. So, perhaps there was a certain level of self-satisfaction, but what self-selected group does not feel that? It just seems a little hard to believe that all the Pharisees were like this to a man; sure, no doubt there were those who took it too far, but all of them? Which leads to (but it does not beg) the question, why do they come in for such nasty treatment? I’m reading Ehrman’s latest book, and he talks about how much of what it said in the gospels is more about the time it was written than the time being written about. Given Paul and his zeal for persecuting the new group, and given that Paul (Saul) was a Pharisee, perhaps they were the ones who led the harassment of the newly-minted version of Judaism. As such, it’s not hard to see why they came in for some especially negative press by the proto-Christian writers. And then, too, one wonders if there wasn’t a certain amount of piling on; they had been designated the bad guys, so there came to be a contest in who could portray them in as poor a light as possible.

5 Omnia vero opera sua faciunt, ut videantur ab hominibus: dilatant enim phylacteria sua et magnificant fimbrias,

6 amant autem primum recubitum in cenis et primas cathedras in synagogis

7 et salutationes in foro et vocari ab hominibus Rabbi.

8 ὑμεῖς δὲ μὴ κληθῆτε, Ῥαββί, εἷς γάρ ἐστιν ὑμῶν ὁ διδάσκαλος, πάντες δὲ ὑμεῖς ἀδελφοί ἐστε.

9 καὶ πατέρα μὴ καλέσητε ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, εἷς γάρ ἐστιν ὑμῶν ὁ πατὴρ ὁ οὐράνιος.

“But you are not called ‘Rabbi’, for (there is) one teacher of you, you all are brothers. (9) And you do not (s0) call the father upon the earth, for the father of you is (the) heavenly (father). 

The rendering of Verse 9 is a little rough; it’s accurate, but this is one of those times where it’s really hard to get the Greek and the English to line up. All of my crib translations add some words, so that it comes out as “call no one/no man your father upon the earth”. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, but it’s just not in the Greek. Or the Latin, either for that matter. Now Greek and Latin both very often assume that the reader will understand certain things that are not stated explicitly, and this is likely one of them. The literal translation I’ve provided does get this point across. Well, sort of, anyway. So the adding of the extra couple of words is pretty much necessary for a smooth rendering in English, and I agree that the Greek can accommodate this extra couple of words. But I want to point out that this phrase is not in the Greek.

8 Vos autem nolite vocari Rabbi; unus enim est Magister vester, omnes autem vos fratres estis.

9 Et Patrem nolite vocare vobis super terram, unus enim est Pater vester, caelestis.

10 μηδὲ κληθῆτε καθηγηταί, ὅτι καθηγητὴς ὑμῶν ἐστιν εἷς ὁ Χριστός.

11 ὁ δὲ μείζων ὑμῶν ἔσται ὑμῶν διάκονος.

12 ὅστις δὲ ὑψώσει ἑαυτὸν ταπεινωθήσεται,καὶ ὅστις ταπεινώσει ἑαυτὸν ὑψωθήσεται.

(10) “And you are not called teachers, that the one teacher of you is the Christ. (11) But the greatest of you is to be the minister of you. (12) But he who will exalt himself will be humbled, and he who will humble himself will be exalted.”

You know, the next time I read about how masterfully Matthew arranged anything, I’m going to commit some kind of minor act to demonstrate my annoyance. This is shoe-horned in, put on a Procrustean bed, and it’s been made to fit whether it fits or not. There is a certain logic: the Pharisees are pompous asses; as such, the disciples are not to follow their example, but rather they are to go the other direction and eschew titles like “teacher” because it is unseemly to puff oneself up with such empty pride. Therefore, be humble, because he who…you know the rest. This is simply a fairly gratuitous attack on the Pharisees. Did they deserve it? Hard to say. The most likely explanation for this animosity likely traces to events that occurred after the death of Jesus. Most likely, this was the group most set against the innovations that were introduced by Jesus’ followers. As such, they likely did deserve some of the scorn they are given, but if that’s the reason behind this all, this sort of disparagement almost seems a bit childish. No? 

10 Nec vocemini Magistri, quia Magister vester unus est, Christus.

11 Qui maior est vestrum, erit minister vester.

12 Qui autem se exaltaverit, humiliabitur; et, qui se humiliaverit, exaltabitur.

Summary Matthew Chapter 22

This is a chapter full of  what the corporate world might call “coachable moments”. These are moments when Jesus is able to, or at least attempts to coach some thick-headed interlocutors into a better understanding of his teachings. Ostensibly, the events described all take place the day after the Cleansing of the Temple. After the big brouhaha, Jesus spent the night in Bethany, cursed the fig tree on his way out, and returned to the Temple, and has been there since the middle of Chapter 21. When looking through a red-letter edition of the the NT, starting in Chapter 20 and running through Chapter 25, this is a very long stretch of Jesus doing a lot of talking. Then Chapter 26 starts with the Last Supper and begins the Passion Narrative. In fact, this is probably the longest stretch of nearly-continuous talking by Jesus in the gospel. Of course, it’s the teaching of Jesus that most sets Matthew apart Mark. One reason this stretch is so long is that the corresponding section of Mark also has Jesus teaching a great deal, whereas the earlier sections of Mark contain narrative, usually revolving around wonders that Jesus worked, and there is much less of that here.

This emphasis on Jesus teaching in Mark coincides with the section of Mark’s narrative that deals with Jesus as the Christ. I would use this as further evidence of the unlikelihood of Q. This hypothetical document has been created as a repository of Jesus’ teachings, and yet we find that these teachings have attached themselves to the Christ narrative. More, when we have examined each of these teachings individually, the conclusion (well, mine, anyway) is that none of them are likely to have originated with Jesus based on the internal evidence of the stories themselves.  It would be hard to overstate the significance of this conclusion. If the stories that involve the teachings of the Christ post-date Jesus’ actual life, taken with the fact that Paul tells us Jesus became the Christ only at the resurrection, this is pretty powerful evidence that the Christ-legend did not attach itself to Jesus during his lifetime in any significant manner. This, in turn, has all sorts of implications, including the reasons Jesus was executed, largely puncturing the story told in the Passion Narrative.

It is tempting to say that this helps drive a stake through the heart of Q, but it really doesn’t. There is no reason that teachings could not have been collected separately just because neither Jesus nor his followers portrayed him  him as the Christ. But, I think the fact that most of these teachings we’ve read in the past two chapters do not seem to date back to Jesus should make us wonder out loud about whether any of the sayings attributed to Jesus actually trace back to him. Personally, I believe the Parables of the Sower and the Mustard Seed are the most likely candidates. And note that they do not talk about retribution or politics, but about the Kingdom of God/heaven/the heavens. And note that we are told this is what John preached. And note that these parables are decidedly non-violent in their approach and content. Unfortunately, assessing whether a story could be traced back to Jesus was not one of the criteria for judgement that I was using as we examined a lot of these stories, but it is something that should be, and will be, done. And retroactively to everything covered.

Again, since so much of this was covered in Mark, two interesting points come up when we see what Matthew has omitted that is found in Mark. The first we discussed, the man’s realisation that following those two commandments was more important than all the burnt sacrifices in the Temple. We discussed this in the chapter, so I don’t think it warrants going over again. The other missing piece of Mark is the story of the Widow’s Mite, the old woman who gives her last two coins to the Temple. Jesus then remarks that she has given more than all of the rich folk have, for these latter gave only from their excess while she gave basically all she had. This story has always disturbed me, and I have considered it a bad precedent for setting her up as an example of piety. Too many people without resources are too often hectored into giving more than they can afford, when they are the ones, perhaps who need help.

But why was it omitted? Because it sets a bad precedent? Somehow, for reasons I can’t entirely explain, I don’t think that’s it. If you look at Strong’s words, you realize that “poor” in all its forms is not a popular word among the evangelists, Luke perhaps excepted. This just does not get the amount of attention we–or I, at least–think it does. Jesus does not talk about the poor all that much, and this is something that I would have said was one of the major themes of Christianity. And then, much of what Jesus says about the poor is not really outside the tenets of mainstream Judaism going back to the book of Ezra, or even further (if there is a further back in time). Did Matthew simply not value the story as–let me rephrase that. Matthew did not especially value the story, which is why he didn’t include it. One temptation is to take this as a reflection of his pagan attitude, that social justice didn’t loom as large for him as it had even for Mark.

Since there is no groundbreaking material to analyse, since the most important thematic consideration is what was omitted, the last question to ask is how, or perhaps whether, this chapter gives us any insight into the development of the message of the proto-Christian assembly. The answer appears to be negative.

So, in all, this is not a chapter that teaches us much about how all was progressing. It is a chapter of stasis, of the status quo, hearkening backward rather than looking forward. But note that this chapter sits approximately in the middle of a very long section of Jesus’ teaching. In fact, this section is longer than the chapters that start with the Beatitudes. It seems like this is significant, but the question is how? Of what does the significance consist? So much is made of Q, of how it is the repository of Jesus’ teaching; but, in fact, we have more of Jesus’ teaching here, and in the corresponding sections of Mark, than we do in the Q material. This is especially true if we limit Q to the actual sayings of Jesus, and do not include things like the Baptist’s “brood of vipers” harangue, or the temptations of Jesus. Due to this, the idea that there existed an entire book of sayings of Jesus that circumvented Mark becomes a little less convincing, I think; although God knows I’m pretty much convinced.

In all, this was a difficult chapter for comment. I’ve spent a lot time in this chapter sitting and staring at the screen, probably more than I actually spent writing.

Matthew Chapter 22:34-46

This will conclude Chapter 22. Jesus is still having at it with different (?) groups of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians in the Temple. This is a fairly short piece, and it seemed like it should be easily finished, but some of the implications turned out to be more difficult to untangle than I could have imagined. A couple of things popped up that I hadn’t anticipated, and this required some time to work them through.

34 Οἱ δὲ Φαρισαῖοι ἀκούσαντες ὅτι ἐφίμωσεν τοὺς Σαδδουκαίους συνήχθησανἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό.

35 καὶ ἐπηρώτησεν εἷς ἐξ αὐτῶν [νομικὸς] πειράζων αὐτόν,

36 Διδάσκαλε, ποία ἐντολὴ μεγάλη ἐν τῷ νόμῳ;

The Pharisees hearing that he had silenced the Sadducees were gathered together on him. (35) And one of them asked, [relating to the laws], testing him, (36) “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest in the law?”

What, are the Pharisees and Sadducees like a tag-team match here, or playing round-robin, or what? The first goes down, the other steps in, then the first comes back? Or, are these a different group of Pharisees than we had earlier? I almost suspect so, which could indicate that this was originally a separate story that got stitched on here.  

34 Pharisaei autem audientes quod silentium imposuisset sadducaeis, convenerunt in unum.

35 Et interrogavit unus ex eis legis doctor tentans eum:

36 “Magister, quod est mandatum magnum in Lege?”.

37 ὁ δὲ ἔφη αὐτῷ, Ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ καρδίᾳ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου:

38 αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ μεγάλη καὶ πρώτη ἐντολή.

39 δευτέρα δὲ ὁμοία αὐτῇ, Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν.

40 ἐν ταύταις ταῖς δυσὶν ἐντολαῖς ὅλος ὁ νόμος κρέμαται καὶ οἱ προφῆται.

He (Jesus) said to him (the querent), ” ‘Love the lord your God in all your heart, and in all your soul, and in all your understanding’. (38) That is the greatest and first commandment.  (39) The second is similar to it, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself ‘. (40) On these two commandments the entire law hangs and the prophets”.

I have heard this answer given by a wise Jewish man when asked to explain the law “while standing on one foot”. I do not know when this story is from, but I have the sense it was later than Jesus. The thing is, the first three commandments of the Decalogue together can be summed up by loving the lord, and the last seven can be summed up by loving one’s neighbor. So even if Jesus was the first to use this expression of the law–which I doubt–it’s really implicit in Jewish tradition. Jesus may, or may not, have been the first to summarize it in this elegant way, but even if he is, he’s not saying anything contrary to Jewish tradition. Nor is he adding anything, except a short-hand notation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

So is this authentic? There is no reason it couldn’t be that I can adduce. There is nothing time-specific about it, there is no sense of “prediction”, it doesn’t depend on anything else having occurred or not occurred when he says this. That’s not exactly a resounding affirmation, but there is nothing here that will really pin this down one way or the other. I can, however, see that one of Jesus’ followers may have wanted to put these words into Jesus’ mouth by taking them from someone else’s without attribution, but that doesn’t really constitute proof, or even a decent bit of evidence; plausibility, by itself, is a necessary but never a sufficient condition to demonstrate historical causation. Much beyond that, I don’t think we can go.

37 Ait autem illi: “ Diliges Dominum Deum tuum in toto corde tuo et in tota anima tua et in tota mente tua:

38 hoc est magnum et primum mandatum.

39 Secundum autem simile est huic: Diliges proximum tuum sicut teipsum.

40 In his duobus mandatis universa Lex pendet et Prophetae”.

41 Συνηγμένων δὲ τῶν Φαρισαίων ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτοὺς ὁ Ἰησοῦς

42 λέγων, Τί ὑμῖν δοκεῖ περὶ τοῦ Χριστοῦ; τίνος υἱός ἐστιν; λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Τοῦ Δαυίδ.

43 λέγει αὐτοῖς, Πῶς οὖν Δαυὶδ ἐν πνεύματι καλεῖ αὐτὸν κύριον λέγων,

44 Εἶπεν κύριος τῷ κυρίῳ μου, Κάθου ἐκ δεξιῶν μου ἕως ἂν θῶ τοὺς ἐχθρούς σου ὑποκάτω τῶν ποδῶν σου;

45 εἰ οὖν Δαυὶδ καλεῖ αὐτὸν κύριον, πῶς υἱὸς αὐτοῦ ἐστιν;

46 καὶ οὐδεὶς ἐδύνατο ἀποκριθῆναι αὐτῷ λόγον, οὐδὲ ἐτόλμησέν τις ἀπ’ ἐκείνης τῆς ἡμέρας ἐπερωτῆσαι αὐτὸν οὐκέτι.

(41) The Pharisees having gathered, Jesus asked them, saying, (42) “What does it seem to you about the christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “(He is the son) of David”.

(43) “How therefore did David in the spirit call him ‘lord’, saying (44) ‘The lord said to my lord, “Sit at my right until I may place your enemies under your feet”? (45) If therefore David called him ‘lord’, how is he (the christ) his (David’s) son?”

(46) And no one was able to answer to him this argument, nor did anyone dare from that day ask him anything.

This story is unusual because Jesus is the aggressor on this one. Instead of letting them come to him, he initiates the encounter by asking a loaded question. Since I have come to the conclusion based on the evidence of Paul that Jesus did not consider himself to be the messiah, nor did his disciples think of him in those terms. As such, it seems difficult to credit that this actually happened. I say that because there’s a sly wink to the audience in the story as it stands, letting the audience know that Jesus is asking this question because he’s the messiah. Get it? The drama, the irony, are great, very effective story-telling. Darn near perfect, or a little too perfect? On the face of it, aside from the subject, it is possible that Jesus did ask this question as a means of making the Pharisees look bad, but this seems more like after-the-fact mining of the HS to show that the common conception of the christ was wrong in some fundamental ways. The most likely reason for doing this would be to bolster the claim that Jesus was, indeed, the messiah.

So this story, on those data, was probably created after Jesus’ death.  But it was in Mark, so it’s fairly early, but that gives us somewhere around 30-40 years for it to arise. And I note that it is in approximately the same context that it was in Mark: after the cleansing of the temple, when Jesus has come back the following day to have a calm little discussion with those in and around the Temple precincts, and everyone is calm and civilised despite the fact that Jesus supposedly trashed the joint the day before. That this story comes so late in Mark, in the run-up to the Passion, is significant. This latter part of Mark, thematically, is focused on the Christ narrative, rather than the wonder-worker part of Mark’s story. That matters, because it shows how the different narratives probably grew up in different times and in different places. And the narrative in Mark gives us a lot of the same stories we got here: the Wicked Tenants, Render unto Caesar, and the Sadducees and their woman with 7 brothers for husbands. And we get the first part of this section, about loving the lord your God and your neighbor. What is interesting is what we don’t get. Mark ends that story with a man agreeing with Jesus on his assessment of the law, and saying following these two commandments mattered to God more than all the burnt sacrifices that could be offered. Jesus’ response is saying that the man is not far from the kingdom of God.

So why did Matthew leave this out? That strikes me as a fairly important question. The sentiment expressed, that loving God and loving our neighbor is much more important than burning things on an altar is quite progressive for the First Century. Or, so it seems to our “enlightened” 21st Century value system. I think the question is whether it would have seemed so to contemporaries of Mark and Matthew, and, if so, to which contemporaries? My first instinct is that pagans, reared in an environment of Platonic and Aristotelean thought, in which the gods and the myths were seem, by many, to be exactly that, myths, might take to the idea of a non-sacramental religion sooner than would Jews, for whom the Temple and its offerings was at the very heart of their religious thought and practice. But that’s the offhand thought, the prima facie observation. Recall when Mark was writing: in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Temple. This was the central focus of their practice, at least in theory. Now, suddenly, Jews were not able to perform the sacrifices. Ergo, it seems like Mark would insert this (whether he originated it or not) to assure Jews hearing the message of Jesus that this excision of a core part of Jewish practice was not the tragedy that it might seem. Indeed, people before the Destruction had come to this very conclusion, that burnt offerings were not necessary; rather, what mattered was the love of God and our neighbour. More, Jesus had foreseen this development, had sanctioned it, had embraced it, and had used it as a milestone marker on the road to the Kingdom of God. Would that not be appealing to a Jew, the heart of whose religion had just been ripped out and  destroyed? It’s possible, to say the least.

Then consider the milieu in which Matthew wrote. The Destruction was now the tales of older people, something that happened some time ago, and the jagged edges of the fact had been worn, if not smooth then certainly much less jagged. Too, for the people to whom Matthew is preaching, pagans, the Destruction was really not the trauma it was for Jews, since the pagan temples were still in existence. And even for Jews, the need and the core responsibility for making sacrifice in the Temple was now something that had not happened for a decade or more, almost a generation; the imperative had diminished. People had adjusted to this new reality. So the need to smooth over the transition that had existed for Mark had dissipated by the time Matthew wrote. It had never pertained to the pagans hearing the Word, and the Jews were likely over it. So Matthew dropped it.   

41 Congregatis autem pharisaeis, interrogavit eos Iesus

42 dicens: “Quid vobis videtur de Christo? Cuius filius est?”. Dicunt ei: “David”.

43 Ait illis: “Quomodo ergo David in Spiritu vocat eum Dominum dicens:

44 “Dixit Dominus Domino meo: Sede a dextris meis,

donec ponam inimicos tuos sub pedibus tuis”?

45 Si ergo David vocat eum Dominum, quomodo filius eius est? ”.

46 Et nemo poterat respondere ei verbum, neque ausus fuit quisquam ex illa die eum amplius interrogare.

Matthew Chapter 22:23-33

Jesus has bested the Pharisees and the Herodians (who, now that we reflect, were very quiet in the preceding passage), and now he’s ready to take on the Sadducees.

23 Ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ προσῆλθον αὐτῷ Σαδδουκαῖοι, λέγοντες μὴ εἶναι ἀνάστασιν, καὶ ἐπηρώτησαν αὐτὸν

24 λέγοντες, Διδάσκαλε, Μωϋσῆς εἶπεν, Ἐάν τις ἀποθάνῃ μὴ ἔχων τέκνα, ἐπιγαμβρεύσει ὁ ἀδελφὸς αὐτοῦ τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀναστήσει σπέρμα τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ.

On that (same) day, approached to him (some) Sadducees who say (lit = ‘saying’) there is to be no resurrection (lit= ‘standing up’), and they asked him (24) saying, “Teacher, Moses said ‘If someone should die not having children, his brother should marry the woman of him (the dead brother) and he should raise progeny for his brother’.”

Just a few technical aspects here. Since there is one group denying the resurrection of the body, then we can be certain that there was a group saying that there was a resurrection. Moreover, this belief of the Sadducees, or rather the belief of those to whom the Sadducees were opposed does not get enough attention in the Christian literature. This is a hugely important bit of context into which Jesus was set, so that the idea of his resurrection was not some novel idea that had neither precedent nor forerunner. I’ve been reviewing what Paul has to say on the matter, and it’s very important to the understanding of this whole situation. Per Josephus, the Pharisees did believe in the resurrection; per Paul, he was a Pharisee. So Paul came into this already believing that the resurrection would happen. Offhand, I’m not sure when the Pharisees expected this to happen; however, we can draw an inference from Paul that provides a pretty sizable clue as to the timing. In 1 Corinthians 15:23 Paul says that Jesus is the first fruits of this harvest of the resurrection, and that those who belong to him will rise when Jesus returns.

In other words, this was to be an end-times event. Paul began to expect the end times not because of anything Jesus taught; rather, Paul believed the end times had come, or would soon come, because of what Jesus did. Or, what happened to Jesus: he was raised from the dead by God the Father. That was the signal, the starting gun, the sign that this was all going to happen. We cannot infer from this that all Pharisees saw this as an end-times event, but that seems like not an unreasonable inference to draw. I am very tempted to say that it indicates that Jesus was not a teacher of apocalypse, but that is not a legitimate conclusion. Jesus’ eventual resurrection really doesn’t confirm or deny any aspect of what Jesus taught. If anything, it would support the idea that apocalypse was a large part of what Jesus taught. Except that is belied by what Mark reports.

What needs to happen is that we need to review all of this again.

The technical aspect that I should have started with is “on that (same) day”. Jesus is still in the Temple, and one group after another is lining up to take him on. It’s sort of like pick-up basketball down at the local court. You get your team together, and wait to play the winner of the current game. That seems to be what is happening here. And I do want to reiterate the point I made in the opening: the Herodians are mentioned, and nothing else. This, I believe, supports my contention that there were no Herodians, that they were added simply to fill out the roster of those who allegedly had designs on Jesus’ life. We see how the layers of the story accrete, but they do not necessarily have any support in the text. Things get stuck on, but that doesn’t mean they belong.

23 In illo die accesserunt ad eum sadducaei, qui dicunt non esse resurrectionem, et interrogaverunt eum

24 dicentes: “ Magister, Moyses dixit, si quis mortuus fuerit non habens filios, ut ducat frater eius uxorem illius et suscitet semen fratri suo.

25 ἦσαν δὲ παρ’ ἡμῖν ἑπτὰ ἀδελφοί: καὶ ὁ πρῶτος γήμας ἐτελεύτησεν, καὶ μὴ ἔχων σπέρμα ἀφῆκεν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ:

26 ὁμοίως καὶ ὁ δεύτερος καὶ ὁ τρίτος, ἕως τῶν ἑπτά.

27 ὕστερον δὲ πάντων ἀπέθανεν ἡ γυνή.

28 ἐν τῇ ἀναστάσει οὖν τίνος τῶν ἑπτὰ ἔσται γυνή; πάντες γὰρ ἔσχον αὐτήν.

(25) “There were for us seven brothers. And the first died, and not having offspring he left his wife to his brother. (26) The same also with the second, and third until all of the seven. (27) Last of all died the woman. (28) In the resurrection (lit = ‘standing up’) therefore, of which of the seven brothers will be the woman? For all had her”.

Having discussed this in Mark, for this iteration perhaps the most salient point about this story is the attitude with which it’s presented: there is a real attitude of “How ridiculous is this whole thing? They just don’t get it, do they?” What this implies, I think, is that there was among Jesus’ followers the idea of the resurrection of the body was sort of taken for granted. What this means, in turn, is that Jesus drew a lot of Jewish followers–at least in the beginning. The idea of a resurrected body would not have made sense to most pagans. In fact, for anyone with any sense of Plato, or the idea of a body/spirit duality would have found the idea of putting the spirit back into the body post-mortem to be retrograde motion. For Greeks, or anyone who held the superiority of the spirit over the body, the idea was to escape from the body and become pure spirit*.

Now, this is not terribly favourable to my idea that the tipping point, when more converts came from pagan rather than Jewish backgrounds came earlier than is generally supposed. Now this story was in Mark as well, and it may have pre-dated Mark. So it could comfortably fit into a milieu of mainly Jewish converts. And I have heard it said that the Pharisees were the direct ancestors of what became the rabbinic Judaism we have been familiar with for at least the last millennium. So it would be appropriate for a group made up of followers of the Pharisees–or at least, of their persuasion for the resurrection–to make fun of those silly Sadducees who didn’t believe it in. [ Hmmm. See the silly Sadducees. Say that a few times quickly…] And we also know that, as time progressed, the idea of saving the immortal soul became pretty much the bedrock belief of Christianity. So while the story originated in a setting where the followers were mostly Jewish, enough pagans came around to the idea so that Matthew could perpetuate the story here.

[ *Note: I’m using “spirit”. I could also use the term “soul”, but at this point that word, I think, doesn’t really mean what we think it means. There is some serious contention about this. Greeks often used a tripartite division of body/spirit (breath, pneuma)/mind, with the latter being the highest of the three. Breath = spirit = pneuma. The first root is Germanic, the second is Latin, and the third is Greek. They all kinda sorta mean the same thing, the idea of the breath in a body, which disappears at death. Psyche kinda sorta means the same thing, but differently. That is the breath of life. In Greek, saving one’s psyche would refer to saving one’s life and not the immortal soul as we would envision it. But this is an issue complex and thorny. ]

25 Erant autem apud nos septem fratres: et primus, uxore ducta, defunctus est et non habens semen reliquit uxorem suam fratri suo;

26 similiter secundus et tertius usque ad septimum.

27 Novissime autem omnium mulier defuncta est.

28 In resurrectione ergo cuius erit de septem uxor? Omnes enim habuerunt eam ”.

29 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Πλανᾶσθε μὴ εἰδότες τὰς γραφὰς μηδὲ τὴν δύναμιν τοῦ θεοῦ:

30 ἐν γὰρ τῇ ἀναστάσει οὔτε γαμοῦσιν οὔτε γαμίζονται, ἀλλ’ ὡς ἄγγελοι ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ εἰσιν.

31 περὶ δὲ τῆς ἀναστάσεως τῶν νεκρῶν οὐκ ἀνέγνωτε τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑμῖν ὑπὸτοῦ θεοῦ λέγοντος,

32 Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ θεὸς Ἀβραὰμ καὶ ὁ θεὸς Ἰσαὰκ καὶ ὁ θεὸς Ἰακώβ; οὐκ ἔστιν [ὁ] θεὸς νεκρῶν ἀλλὰ ζώντων.

33 καὶ ἀκούσαντες οἱ ὄχλοι ἐξεπλήσσοντο ἐπὶ τῇ διδαχῇ αὐτοῦ.

(29) Answering, Jesus said to them, “You wander (err), not understanding the scriptures, nor the power of God. (30) For in the resurrection there will be no marrying nor being married, but as angels in the sky they are. (31) Regarding the resurrection of the dead you do not know the writing to you about God, saying, ‘I am the god of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’. God is not of the dead, but the living.”

(33) And hearing the crowd were driven from their senses by his teaching.

I will be quite honest when I say that Jesus’ argument from Scripture isn’t particularly convincing. There is no real logical connexion between “I am the God of Abraham & c” and “he is the God of the living”. At best, there is sort of a grammatical sleight of hand; “I am the God” instead of “I was the God”. It’s not even really one of Jesus’ better retorts, certainly nowhere near the brilliance of the “render unto Caesar” exchange. And I wonder that the Sadducees didn’t have some sort of comeback for this. Instead, they slink off with their tails between their legs, thoroughly trounced by Jesus’ superior argumentative skills and his knowledge of Scripture.

All of this is by way of saying that I would question the historicity of the incident. No surprise there, since I question the historicity of most of what we’re reading. But really, this is one that I had originally thought was a decent candidate for tracing back to Jesus, but now I can’t really buy that as likely. 

It seems there should be more to say about this, but nothing further is coming to me. This has been sitting for about four days now, and I’m still coming up empty. Perhaps more will occur to me later. If this is too abrupt, my apologies. 

29 Respondens autem Iesus ait illis: “Erratis nescientes Scripturas neque virtutem Dei;

30 in resurrectione enim neque nubent neque nubentur, sed sunt sicut angeli in caelo.

31 De resurrectione autem mortuorum non legistis, quod dictum est vobis a Deo dicente:

32 “Ego sum Deus Abraham et Deus Isaac et Deus Iacob”? Non est Deus mortuorum sed viventium”.

33 Et audientes turbae mirabantur in doctrina eius.