Summary Matthew Chapter 26

As I see it, the main issues of this chapter involve credibility and the date. What part, if any, of this story can we believe? When was it written? What are the internal clues for either of these? To some degree, of course, these questions are pertinent for almost any chapter in any part of the NT taken at random. And the answers could almost always be “little to none”, “at least forty years after the fact”, and “maybe a few”. It’s just that, with so few theological or doctrinal issues to be discussed, these questions take on outsized proportions in this chapter. There are a few theological aspects to be considered: the symbolism of Jesus as the Pascal Lamb, the idea that Jesus prayed–fervently-that he not have to die, and the question asked by the high priests if he was the anointed. Let’s start with these; perhaps we’ll find that these aren’t so incidental after all.

The first two are already well-established in Mark. This connexion holds even though John felt it necessary to mess with the timeline so that Jesus died on the Day of Preparation–when the lambs would be killed–rather than on the first full day of Passover, after the Seder had been held. My suspicion is that this connexion can be traced back to Paul, at the very least, if not further. Paul was quite explicit about the sacrifice of Jesus. Perhaps he did not situate Jesus’ death as coincidental with the Passover festival, but from the idea of sacrifice to the idea of the Paschal Lamb is a fairly short step. This also takes us back to the question of whether Paul knew, or whether he thought it irrelevant, but that question will remain barring the discovery of some further evidence of unimpeachable provenance. That John chose to move the crucifixion forward by a day speaks to his theological outlook, and provides even more proof that the evangelists overall, and perhaps John in particular, were more concerned with Eternal Truth than they were with mere factual accuracy. In any case, the connexion between Jesus’ crucifixion and Passover was set at some point after Paul.

But when? And when were the outlines of the Passion Narrative as we have it set? My belief is that the motivation ascribing the role of Prime Movers to the high priests only makes sense after 70. We know that there was a story of Jesus being arrested after dining with his disciples; this is what Paul says, after all. Even if he did receive the story through inspiration–another term for “made it up”–he still put it out there into circulation. As an aside, we always, always have to be very conscious about this aspect of Paul’s writing. After all, he claims that Jesus appeared to him in the same way that he appeared to the others. That is pure inspiration. Paul also had a vision of being taken to the third heaven, so the man was not a stranger to the ecstatic vision, or at least flashes of insight in which the Truth conveyed was so powerful that he took it as True in a way that may have included being factually accurate.

It is, of course, possible that the last layer of causality that pointed out the high priests was added to an existing narrative, but that almost creates more problems than it solves. If not the high priests, then why was Jesus executed? That the question becomes almost impossible to answer in any meaningful way should not be surprising; it is, after all, the question we’ve been grappling with for most of this discussion. But even without historical probability, what did a narrative about the passion give as the reason before the Destruction of the Temple? If a Passion Narrative did exist before Mark, but the blame-the-high priests motive was most appropriate before 70, then what?  Who would have been first atop the list of villains from the perspective of the nascent church?

It’s a serious question, and the answer may have something to do with the “tipping point” that I’ve mentioned any number of times. If the tipping point had come, and if the authorities in the synagogues did engage in some form of systemic harassment of the communities of Jesus as Paul indicates, then it’s entirely possible that Jewish authority figures may have been the ones blamed even before Mark wrote his gospel, and even before the Jewish War. This is a major piece of conjecture, however, and it really deserves a lot of scrutiny before it can even make it to the realm of hypothesis. For the moment, let’s leave it at conjecture until we’ve had time to digest this, and to re-evaluate the preceding narrative in terms of this possibility. Does the narrative support it? Is this, for example, why we have all the stories of Jesus annoying the Pharisees? That would make sense, but we need to go a bit beyond that in our examination.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, but I do want to remind everyone. This chapter contains the story of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet with the expensive unguent. The point is that she is not identified as Mary Magdalene, neither here nor in any of the gospels. In fact, John is the only one to name the woman, and he identifies her as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, with whom Jesus has several interactions. And yet, despite her anonymity in the synoptic gospels, “everyone knows” that this anointing was done by Mary Magdalene. In the same way, “everyone knows” that she was a prostitute, even though this is nowhere stated. It’s just a great example of the substitution of later tradition for scriptural evidence. This is why it’s so very important to recognize this when we see it. This was the sort of analysis that the Protestants insisted upon, and why they got rid of the idea of Purgatory; it makes sense–why else do we need to pray for the dead?–but there’s nothing in scripture to support it. I do not know whether any Protestant churches identify the woman in this story as Mary Magdalene, or whether she is considered a prostitute in non-Catholic sermons. Or is it the Protestants who consider her a prostitute?

This story of the woman anointing Jesus has one ring of truth to it. As he often is in Mark, Jesus is a bit surly with his followers, and Matthew continues with that. Of course, this assumes that an angry Jesus is a factually-accurate Jesus. The idea is that this is “embarrassing”, because the “authentic” Jesus is the kind, gentle Jesus of the Beatitudes. And honestly, I think there is something to that. Jesus the Wonder-Worker is not necessarily the magnanimous and sweet-natured individual envisioned as the Lamb of God. This is a rare instance in Matthew where that older, less pleasant Jesus with the sharper edges breaks through. Then we should ask why this was retained, since it portrays Jesus in a not-entirely-favourable light. But this could be said about many of the stories that Matthew carries over from Mark. Offhand, the most likely reason that Matthew retained so much, and changed so little is that Mark’s outline and narrative were too firmly entrenched in the tradition to be ignored. Think about it; Matthew belongs to a community, and Matthew has a copy of Mark. Doesn’t this imply that he and his community were pretty familiar with Mark? So when Matthew set about to expand the narrative of Mark with new teachings of Jesus, one has to imagine the difficulty to be encountered by trying to make wholesale changes to what Mark said. Additions would be fine, and even expected; why else does one write a new gospel? But alterations that transform the previous narrative too much would likely cause a bit too much discomfort among the community.

The other issue is Judas. Did he exist? I tend to suspect not, and largely for the reasons I doubt the existence of the Twelve in Jesus’ lifetime: aside from Peter, James, John, and possibly Andrew, they do not figure at all in the narrative of the gospels. Any gospels. Andrew has a cameo when he is called, and the others are nonexistent except for when they are sent out, an activity that is highly dubious. And so with Judas: he is named when the others are, then he disappears completely until called upon to betray Jesus. That’s it. This sort of episodic appearance isn’t conducive to establishing historical credibility; rather, it makes him appear to be much more of a literary convention than anything. And too, Paul says that the words of the Last Supper were spoken on the night before Jesus was arrested, not on the night before he was betrayed, as many forms of the Consecration (Catholic and Episcopalian, at least) say. Again, Paul’s words do not conclusively prove anything, but they support the contention that the theme of Judas-as-betrayer may have, and probably did, come into being after Paul.

There is one other bit about the story of Judas and the high priests. At several points in the narrative, the high priests say that they must not act against Jesus for fear of the crowd. And the same caveat was given about John, that Herod was afraid of the crowd’s reaction if John were arrested. And with Jesus, the priests specifically warn themselves that they must not act during the festival. But that is precisely when they acted, and according to the story, not only did the crowd not protest, but they shouted for Jesus’ death. So there was no rioting. Nor was there any when John was executed. Josephus tells us that there was a certain level of schadenfreude among the populace when Herod was defeated in battle, the populace seeing this as something Herod brought upon himself because he killed John, but there were no disturbances. The implication is that, once again, this represents a literary convention rather than something historically accurate.

Finally, there is the role of Judas and its theological implications. In The Inferno, Judas sits in the bottom-most circle of Hell, along with Brutus, the assassin of Julius Caesar, and Satan himself. But what would have happened if Judas, of his free will, had chosen not to betray Jesus? Would the Divine Plan have fulfilled itself? No doubt, the immediate reaction is “of course”. God’s Will is not to be thwarted. But the implication of this is that Judas was not a necessary agent if it could have happened without him. If that is true, then why was Judas damned? This gets into all sorts of sticky wickets about Predestination & c. I don’t propose to go into that again. But the question, IMO, is valid, and carries a lot of theological consequences. We’ll leave it at that.


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 23, 2016, in Chapter 26, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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