Matthew Chapter 26:55-58

This section is very short, because it comes directly before the questioning of Jesus by the Council. That section is long enough on its own; adding this to it would make it impossible. So we have one that’s a bit of a filler and little more.

55 Ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ὥρᾳ εἶπεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τοῖς ὄχλοις, Ὡς ἐπὶ λῃστὴν ἐξήλθατε μετὰ μαχαιρῶν καὶ ξύλων συλλαβεῖν με; καθ’ ἡμέραν ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ ἐκαθεζόμην διδάσκων καὶ οὐκ ἐκρατήσατέ με.

In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, “How as a thief have you come with swords and clubs to capture me? Each day in the Temple I sat teaching and you did not arrest me”. 

I have to stop for a comment about a particular word, the one I translated as “thief”. Perhaps “robber” would have been better, but it doesn’t matter. Reza Aslan in Zealot has argued, very unpersuasively, that we are to see this word as the equivalent of something like revolutionary. Or insurrectionist. His point is that the Romans only crucified rebels, and since Jesus was crucified, he was a zealot–or Zealot–intent on raising a rebellion against Rome. This is all fine and good, and had the book been allowed to come and go as it should have–very quietly and without much notice, largely because it didn’t particularly deserve any–there would have been no problem. Unfortunately, the FOX News people got ahold of it, taking umbrage that a Muslim should have the temerity to write a book on Jesus. This caused an uproar, and the book lodged in the popular imagination. This is a pity.

Having studied First Century Rome in some detail, I was very surprised to see him suggest that crucifixion was reserved for rebels. It was used on rebels, Spartacus and a few thousand of his henchmen being a perfect example; however, I have never, ever encountered any suggestion in any Roman source that crucifixion was the sole prerogative of rebels. The Romans were much more equal opportunity than that; they crucified people without regard for race, colour, creed, national origin, or offense. This being the case, the attempt to classify this word as having connotations of revolutionary fall rather flat. In fact, this word is more usually used to refer to pirates than to rebels. Nor does the Latin support the case. It’s the word used for the bandits in The Golden Ass. Aslan does make an attempt to argue that bandits were somehow the equivalent of revolutionaries, in that both disturb the peace, but this connexion is weak in the extreme.

As such, among scholars, the book would have died a natural death, mostly ignored. This would be due in part to the fact that he made no attempt to prove this connexion with actual evidence from sources, showing that it was indeed used in this sense. Plus the book has no footnotes, so the combination of these two means that there is no basis for assessing his argument on why he believes this was true. This is the functional equivalent of not having an argument, which he doesn’t.  

Unfortunately, the damage has been done, and an association of crucifixion with rebels has lodged itself in the popular mind. I was on a FaceBook group arguing for the existence of Jesus as a man, and someone brought up the point that only rebels were crucified. More’s the pity. So the next time you hear anyone saying this about crucifixion, tell them that this is completely and categorically incorrect. If they don’t believe you, refer them to me.

55 In illa hora dixit Iesus turbis: “Tamquam ad latronem existis cum gladiis et fustibus comprehendere me? Cotidie sedebam docens in templo, et non me tenuistis”.

56 τοῦτο δὲ ὅλον γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθῶσιν αἱ γραφαὶ τῶν προφητῶν. Τότε οἱ μαθηταὶ πάντες ἀφέντες αὐτὸν ἔφυγον.

57 Οἱ δὲ κρατήσαντες τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἀπήγαγον πρὸς Καϊάφαν τὸν ἀρχιερέα, ὅπου οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι συνήχθησαν.

58 ὁ δὲ Πέτρος ἠκολούθει αὐτῷ ἀπὸ μακρόθεν ἕως τῆς αὐλῆς τοῦ ἀρχιερέως, καὶ εἰσελθὼν ἔσω ἐκάθητο μετὰ τῶν ὑπηρετῶν ἰδεῖν τὸ τέλος.

“This has all come to be in order that the scriptures be fulfilled.” Then leaving him, all his disciples fled. (57) Those having overpowered Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the Scribes and the elders were gathered. (58) And Peter followed him from a distance until the courtyard of the high priest, and going in he say with those serving to see the end. 

I suppose the main point here is that Jesus once again says that this all must happen so that the scriptures can be fulfilled. Once again, no references or citations to specific writings are made. Why not? This led to centuries of Christian scholars scouring the HS looking for connexions, or any sort of vague allusions that could be interpreted so that the possibly referred to Jesus. As mentioned above, the best match was the Suffering Servant of Deutero-Isaiah.

Regardless, it is important to recognize that this insistence on a scriptural prophecy, or a scriptural basis for the execution serves two purposes. First and most obviously, it’s an assurance that the universe is unfolding as it should, so there is no need or reason to be concerned that the Messiah, the Christ was crucified like a common criminal. It is all part of The Plan. There is another aspect to this, however, one that gets lost to us moderns. In the days of Jesus, novelty was not a good thing, especially if the topic was wisdom. In Latin, the term for revolution is res novae, literally “new things”. If you wanted to be taken seriously, especially when it came to religion, you wanted to be old, or even ancient. The Egyptians garnered no end of respect because of the generally acknowledged age of their civilisation. It was the acknowledged (if slightly fudged, or overstated by five or six centuries) antiquity of Judaism that led so many pagans to become “God-fearers”, acolytes of a synagogue where they learned about the ancient wisdom of Moses and Solomon. 

This, IMO, is one of the best arguments that Jesus actually lived. If I were alive in the First Century and wanted to create a new religion, I would most assuredly not invent a founder who had died a decade or two before; rather, I would have claimed to have found wisdom scrolls that were a thousand years old. That would have given them much more credibility, more gravitas, as the Romans called it, more substance and the density that comes with venerable tradition. Of course, this argument is lost on most moderns; the times I’ve used it, my interlocutors have dismissed it out of hand as unimportant. Au contraire! It matters. A lot. So by claiming–without evidence–the scriptural basis of Jesus, from works (supposedly*) written many centuries earlier, Matthew is giving Jesus a respectable pedigree. He is saying that Jesus is the culmination of a thousand years of writings, of predictions and prophecy. He is giving Jesus substance, gravitas.

As mentioned, Luke carries on this tradition with the road to Emmaus. It would be interesting to look back at Mark to see how forcefully he stresses this ancient connexion to a group that had just rebelled against Rome. Mark had reason and incentive to play down the association; by Matthew’s time, this need to dissociate from Jews had passed; plenty of people still remembered it, but plenty more didn’t. Its relevance had faded.

Oh, and let’s not forget that we’ve left Peter in the courtyard of the high priest’s house.

56 Hoc autem totum factum est, ut implerentur scripturae Prophetarum. Tunc discipuli omnes, relicto eo, fugerunt.

57 Illi autem tenentes Iesum duxerunt ad Caipham principem sacerdotum, ubi scribae et seniores convenerant.

58 Petrus autem sequebatur eum a longe usque in aulam principis sacerdotum; et ingressus intro sede bat cum ministris, ut videret finem.

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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 October 1, 2016, in Chapter 26, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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