Matthew Chapter 23:29-39

This will wrap up the chapter, and the “Woes” section. I don’t know how much commentary will be required, or will seem meet. However, sections I’d thought would be short turned out to be anything but.

29 Οὐαὶ ὑμῖν, γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί, ὅτι οἰκοδομεῖτε τοὺς τάφους τῶν προφητῶν καὶ κοσμεῖτε τὰ μνημεῖα τῶν δικαίων,

30 καὶ λέγετε, Εἰ ἤμεθα ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις τῶν πατέρων ἡμῶν, οὐκ ἂν ἤμεθα αὐτῶν κοινωνοὶ ἐν τῷ αἵματι τῶν προφητῶν.

31 ὥστε μαρτυρεῖτε ἑαυτοῖς ὅτι υἱοί ἐστε τῶν φονευσάντων τοὺς προφήτας.

“Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, (you) hypocrites, that build sepulchres of the prophets and decorate the memorials of the just, (30) and say, “If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been associated (lit= “in common“)  in the blood of the prophets. (31) In this way you demonstrate yourselves that you are sone of the murderers of the prophets.

Here’s a place (one of many) that my lack of background in Judaic studies is a real detriment. It would be extremely useful to know when this accusation began to be used against Jewish religious authorities. Was this new with the followers of Jesus? My guess is that it wasn’t, that it had come into circulation in the last two centuries before the CE; after all, so much else that seemed new (or that I thought was new) with Jesus has turned out to be part of common Jewish thought in the last centuries BCE, one of these ideas being resurrection.

The other thing is that I’m a bit uncertain about the process of “whitewash”. That has been the standard translation since, like, forever. But I did not understand that this entailed (as near as I can tell) dissolving lime (the white, powdery substance used to make soil less acidic. This produces a white liquid that is used as paint. I mention this because the Greek term means, at root, to plaster with lime or stucco. OK, that part doesn’t matter so much; what’s interesting is that the MacLaren Exposition on the Bible (Thanks, http://biblehub.com/) informs me that the purpose of whitewashing the tombs was not cosmetic, but to make them really obvious, to make them stand out. In this way they could be avoided, since contact with the dead could lead to ritual contamination and impurity. Apparently Muslims do, or used to do the same thing.

29 Vae vobis, scribae et pharisaei hypocritae, qui aedificatis sepulcra prophetarum et ornatis monumenta iustorum

30 et dicitis: “Si fuissemus in diebus patrum nostrorum, non essemus socii eorum in sanguine prophetarum”!

31 Itaque testimonio estis vobis metipsis quia filii estis eorum, qui prophetas occiderunt.

32 καὶ ὑμεῖς πληρώσατε τὸ μέτρον τῶν πατέρων ὑμῶν.

33 ὄφεις γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν, πῶς φύγητε ἀπὸ τῆς κρίσεως τῆς γεέννης;

“And you fulfill the measure of your fathers. (33) Snakes born of vipers! How will you flee from the judgement of Gehenna? (i.e., How will you flee from the judgement sending you to Gehenna?)

“Snakes born of vipers” is a novel formulation of this execration. But before that, the Pharisees are compared to their forebears, and found not to be much of an improvement.

Stylistic considerations aside, the real gist of these verses is the condemnation to Gehenna. One thing to address right away is the use of Gehenna, rather than Hades as he did in 11:23 & 16:18. I used the occurrence of Hades instead of Gehenna as weight on the scale balancing the evidence that Matthew was a pagan. The use of Gehenna here doesn’t help that case, but if you look at the used of Hades in the NT, there is one incidence in 1 Corinthians, two in Matthew, four in Luke/Acts, and four in Revelation. So it’s a word used more frequently later than it was earlier, even if Hades did not supplant Gehenna. Or did it? If you look at the occurrences of the latter, of the twelve instances, all are in Mark and Matthew, with one in the letter of James and one in Luke. And the occurrence in Luke is his version of a passage in Matthew. IOW, Matthew was the pivot point after which Gehenna is dropped and Hades becomes the standard word for the underworld. Does that help or hurt the argument that Matthew was a pagan? It’s a close thing, but Matthew does expand its use, and that has to count for something. 

This should not distract us from the most interesting implication to be gleaned from this analysis of the Hades/Gehenna discussion. The most fascinating aspects of this are 1) That the topic of Hell is very, very limited; and 2) that it sort of flourishes in the first two gospels, only to die out until Revelation. (And one of the instances there is in Revelation 6:8, the description of the breaking of the fourth seal that looses the fourth horseman, Death, following whom is Hades.) Why would that be? What would cause this? A major obstacle to answering this question is to decide what was actually meant by Hades, or Gehenna. Of course, we know what it meant, which is why “hell-fire” shows up so commonly in the translations. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul talks about the “coming wrath”, a sentiment echoed by Mark and Matthew. Is this “wrath” the same as hell fire? Difficult to say. One’s impulse is that these are different concepts, but how much of that is due to a couple of thousand years of interpretation?

Taking a guess, I would say the most plausible explanation has to do with the prevalence of eschatology in the thought of the time. Paul believed the End Time was near; Mark holds on to some of this urgency, as does Matthew, but one senses that the feeling is not quite so insistent. Even in 1 Corinthians, Paul’s attitude has toned down a bit from 1 Thessalonians where he seems to have believed it was coming any day, or any hour. I’m not sure if this is legitimate, but the later letter of 1 Peter says that the secrets of salvation will be revealed at the end time. Assuming that, from a discussion of salvation, we can infer the concurrence of damnation, 1 Peter is saying that this will only be revealed at the End Time, and implies that the End Time is still some distance away. Therefore, the topic of Hell fire may have lost some of its immediacy. But then, when “John” wrote the Apocalypse, the urgency of the topic was once again forefront, so Hades is once again relevant. And note that it’s Hades, and not Gehenna, which more or less vanishes from the vocabulary of the NT. 

32 Et vos implete mensuram patrum vestrorum.

33 Serpentes, genimina viperarum, quomodo fugietis a iudicio gehennae?

34 διὰ τοῦτο ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἀποστέλλω πρὸς ὑμᾶς προφήτας καὶ σοφοὺς καὶ γραμματεῖς: ἐξ αὐτῶν ἀποκτενεῖτε καὶ σταυρώσετε, καὶ ἐξ αὐτῶν μαστιγώσετε ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς ὑμῶν καὶ διώξετε ἀπὸ πόλεως εἰς πόλιν:

35 ὅπως ἔλθῃ ἐφ’ ὑμᾶς πᾶν αἷμα δίκαιον ἐκχυννόμενον ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἀπὸ τοῦ αἵματος Αβελ τοῦ δικαίου ἕως τοῦ αἵματος Ζαχαρίου υἱοῦ Βαραχίου, ὃν ἐφονεύσατε μεταξὺ τοῦ ναοῦ καὶ τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου.

Because of this, behold, I send to you prophets and wise men and scribes; of them you have killed and crucified, and of them you have scourged in your synagogues and driven them from city to city. (35) In this way might come upon you all the just blood having been spilled out upon the earth, from the blood of Abel the justified until the blood of Zacharias son of Barach, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.

This latter is a reference to 2 Chronicles 24.

Saying that the prophets were crucified is an obvious anachronism. Crucifixion was a Roman process, and I’m not aware of its use in the Near East prior to the Roman period. It’s tempting to seize upon this and say Aha! This passage was obviously written after Jesus was crucified, since it does not (indeed cannot) be said of ant prior prophets. However, to hoist myself upon my own petard here, it’s a single word–two, if we count the “and”–as such, this could easily have been interpolated later. Some Christian scribe copying this in the 2nd or 3rd Century could have added this in the margin and some copyist in the 5th or 6th Century could have mistakenly incorporated the words into the text. I made the same suggestion about the “Christ” in the first line of Mark. This happened. Copyists made notes in margins because it was often the only place (and certainly the most effective) place to make the note. I have mentioned this before, but recently an old fragment of Isaiah was discovered. Upon comparison to the standard text, it was found that several sentences that had been considered part of the original text were, in fact, an interpolation, the inclusion of a marginal gloss. If this can happen with a couple of sentences, running perhaps two dozen words, the inclusion of one or two here and there is eminently plausible.

The bit about “driving from city to city”, OTOH, sounds an awful lot like Acts. That is, it sounds like things that happened to (proto-)Christian groups, or preachers. It sounds like the beginning of 1 Thessalonians, in which Paul tells the Thessalonians how he was slandered in Philippi. Even more so the idea of being scourged in the synagogues. There is no indication of this during Jesus’ life, and really not much more evidence for it after Jesus’s death. It relies largely on the questionable historicity of the events in Acts. So this combination wasn’t necessarily an interpolation, but something written after the death of Jesus. Given this, the “and crucified” could actually be original to the text, but it doesn’t have to be. This passage is in Luke, so it presumably came from the so-called Q material. Against that I would ask how likely it is that someone, even Jesus, had a passage from 2 Chronicles ready at hand as he was preaching. Rather, this seems to be the sort of thing that a scholar, poring over the HS looking for before-the-fact predictions of Jesus would uncover. Matthew was such a scholar, whether he began life as a Jew or as a pagan. There is such a thing as seeing a pattern that’s not there, but there’s also willful blindness to seeing only what you want. At some point, it comes down to a binary choice about the things that “Jesus said”. Do they make more sense in the time that Jesus lived? Or after he died? To me, these two verses clearly fall into the latter category.

34 Ideo ecce ego mitto ad vos prophetas et sapientes et scribas; ex illis occidetis et crucifigetis et ex eis flagellabitis in synagogis vestris et persequemini de civitate in civitatem,

35 ut veniat super vos omnis sanguis iustus, qui effusus est super terram a sanguine Abel iusti usque ad sanguinem Zachariae filii Barachiae, quem occidistis inter templum et altare.

36 ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἥξει ταῦτα πάντα ἐπὶ τὴν γενεὰν ταύτην.

“Amen I say to you, all this will come to this generation.  

This, I think, pretty much nails down that this came after Jesus. No sort of retribution was visited upon the generation alive when Jesus died; the divine wrath came one, or even two, generations later, and those hearing these words would have known that. So how do we account for “this generation”? That is the clear meaning of the Greek, and of the Latin below, and that is how pretty much all–based on a very cursory summary–of the English translations render this. We have perhaps three choices. The first is to take it that Jesus said these words and absolutely meant the generation alive when he spoke the words, and so he was flat-out wrong. Second, we can take it that Jesus said the words, but meant them more figuratively, meaning “some” generation, and so he effectively predicted the Destruction.

Finally, we can take it that the words were added later, when the “present generation” had indeed suffered the wrath of Rome. It is significant, I think, that Mark does not have these words, but Matthew does. This semi-ironic usage had not fully entered the tradition when Mark wrote, presumably fairly shortly after the Destruction, but they had by the time Matthew wrote, the better part of a generation later. The words came about at a time when the Destruction was some years past, but not so long that the “present generation” that had experienced the horrors had passed on, but was still very much alive and thriving. This, in turn, would imply that Matthew may very well have gotten these words from another source, one closer to the mid-70s, and did not come up with this formulation himself. 

36 Amen dico vobis: Venient haec omnia super generationem istam.

37 Ἰερουσαλὴμ Ἰερουσαλήμ, ἡ ἀποκτείνουσα τοὺς προφήτας καὶ λιθοβολοῦσα τοὺς ἀπεσταλμένους πρὸς αὐτήν, ποσάκις ἠθέλησα ἐπισυναγαγεῖντὰ τέκνα σου, ὃν τρόπον ὄρνις ἐπισυνάγει τὰ νοσσία αὐτῆς ὑπὸ τὰς πτέρυγας, καὶ οὐκ ἠθελήσατε.

38 ἰδοὺ ἀφίεται ὑμῖν ὁ οἶκος ὑμῶν ἔρημος.

39 λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν, οὐ μή με ἴδητε ἀπ’ ἄρτι ἕως ἂν εἴπητε, Εὐλογημένος ὁ ἐρχόμενος ἐν ὀνόματι κυρίου.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem the killer of prophets and the stone-caster to those having been sent to you, how many times have I wished to gather your children, which in the way the hen gathers together her brood under her wings, and you do not wish. (38) Look, your home is leaving you (in) solitude. (39) For I say to you, you do not see me from now until you answer, ‘Blessed is the one coming in the name of the lord’.”

That ends the “Woes” and the chapter. This is a lovely metaphor, the desire to gather Jerusalem like a hen with her chicks under her wings. And some of the Greek in here is fairly sophisticated. Here’s another problem with Q: was it written in Greek? Was the Greek as well polished as this? Or is this Matthew? If the latter, how can we be so sure that he did not think up some of this material?

By the way, Matthew’s proficiency in Greek is not a terribly good argument that Matthew began life as a pagan. By this time, a lot of the Jews living in other parts of the Eastern Empire spoke Greek as their native language. Many Jews read the HS in the LXX version, as opposed to the Hebrew version. So that Matthew was fairly erudite in Greek only means that he was educated. 

And at this point, I believe we’ve beaten this topic into the ground. Seems like there should be more to say, but cannot imagine what it might be. This has been a difficult section, largely because it’s essentially repetitive.

37 Ierusalem, Ierusalem, quae occidis prophetas et lapidas eos, qui ad te missi sunt, quotiens volui congregare filios tuos, quemadmodum gallina congregat pullos suos sub alas, et noluistis!

38 Ecce relinquitur vobis domus vestra deserta!

39 Dico enim vobis: Non me videbitis amodo, donec dicatis: “Benedictus, qui venit in nomine Dominil” ”.

Advertisements

About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on May 28, 2016, in Chapter 23, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: