Monthly Archives: December 2016

Summary: The Context of Matthew-1

Here’s what I think, where I think Matthew fits in. The early period of development saw a mosaic of different communities. Some of them were organic: they grew up in Jerusalem and Galilee, in places where people had been touched directly by Jesus. The community in Galilee owed a lot to the organization and patronage of Mary the Magdalene. She knew Jesus when the latter was alive, and probably provided some financial support for him and his small crew that included Peter, probably the sons of Zebedee, and maybe James, brother of Jesus. I’ve toyed with the idea that perhaps the Magdalene was married to James, brother of Jesus, but I think that’s unlikely given the way the paths diverged after Jesus’ death. The Magdalene probably followed Jesus into Jerusalem and was there, in some capacity, when Jesus was executed. At which point she returned to Galilee with a significant number of Jesus’ followers. This community was likely responsible for the creation of the Passion Narrative. Perhaps this did not come about immediately, but the tales of being in Jerusalem during the last days of Jesus’ life were told by the group in Galilee, and eventually grew into a story that reached Mark, who probably re-worked it to fit the pro-Roman sympathies of the day. The Galilean community were responsible for the part of the Passion/Resurrection Narrative present in Mark and Matthew that included instructions that the survivors were to return to Galilee. This group did not see Jesus as a divine individual, but he was revered as a wonder-worker who had performed miracles, which was seen as demonstrating Jesus had God’s favour.

Another group grew up in Jerusalem. This, of course, was the community led by James the Just and Peter. If the sons of Zebedee were indeed followers of Jesus, they went back to Galilee with Mary, for they are not part of the landscape for Paul. It’s possible that they did not exist, but their roles are so prominent that I’m loathe to consign them to the dustbin of fiction. But note how they disappear from the scene during the Passion and Resurrection. If these two narratives are the creation of the Galilean community, then chances are that these two were not part of this community. So if they were not part of neither the Galilean nor Jerusalem communities, then where did they fit? Most likely they were part of the community that produced Mark; he features them prominently, and he treats them much better than he treats Peter; so I would suggest that they played an integral part in the foundation of the community to which Mark would subsequently belong, so Mark wrote them into the role of being founding members of Jesus’ inner circle. Note that they do not–most likely, cannot–supplant Peter for pride of place. Peter’s role is apparently too well established to be left out, or even just ignored; he can, however, be slighted, disparaged, and superseded to some degree.

The elevation of Peter comes at the expense of James the Just. Based on Paul’s testimony, I do not think it can be productively argued, or even asserted, that James was not the leader of the Jerusalem Assembly. “The James Gang” as I rather facetiously nicknamed them back when we were reading Galatians. The thing is, Paul’s account is just sufficiently jaundiced to make it highly unlikely that he was making it up. Paul did not particularly like James, and Paul didn’t have a terribly high opinion of Peter, based on the latter’s unwillingness to stand up to James. That James stayed in Jerusalem is one reason I discarded the notion that perhaps it was James who was married to the Magdalene. It’s not impossible that they were married, but parted company, but I would think that such a relationship would have shown up in the Passion Narrative that Mary most likely helped create. At the very least, she prepared the ground for it by telling–and doubtless re-telling–the story of Jesus’ last days. Mark disparages Peter, but he completely omits James the Just, and yet the latter’s reputation persisted to become incorporated into the Gospel of Thomas. Of course, this reputation only “persisted” if the Gospel of Thomas was written later, rather than earlier; but I believe it to date to the second, if not third quarter of the Second Century, based on content and form and other internal evidence.

This puts Mark and James on separate tracks. It has often been pointed out that Mark’s knowledge of the geography of Judea and Galilee & environs is perhaps sketchy at best. I am not qualified to confirm or deny this; I will operate on the belief that there are legitimate reasons for saying this and take the position that the assessment is accurate, largely because I’ve never encountered an argument denying this position. The implication, therefore, is that Mark was most likely separated physically from Jerusalem, and so may not have been aware of the tradition of James. One of the more salient implications of this lack of awareness is that Mark was probably also unaware of Paul. Wherever Mark was–and Rome is not impossible, which some traditions suggest–Paul was not there, and his presence was not known to whatever community it was to which Mark belonged. It was a community that probably owed its origin to the sons of Zebede, who are not mentioned by Paul. In which case, we have to ask–and question–whether these sons were real, or if they were actually close followers of Jesus. It is doubtful that they were disciples ab origine, as Mark and Matthew say, or whether they were participants to any of the great events of Jesus’ career, such as the Transfiguration and the events in Gethsemane. Of course, we have to ask if any of those events actually took place; if we conclude that they didn’t, then of course they did not participate. And Matthew most likely just followed Mark on much of this because he had no reason not to follow Mark.

That takes us back to something said in the commentary to the text. The writing of a gospel by Mark was probably a watershed event for the development of the proto-church for many different reasons. First and maybe foremost–to put this in crass commercial terms of the 21st Century–it was probably a killer app as a marketing tool. Suddenly, you had a complete story of your founder, and you had a consistent story. The fragmentation would slow down considerably; thinking in terms of a river, it’s like being able to keep the main channel strong, thereby preventing the branching into a thousand streams of a delta. This way, someone hearing the story in one town would not go to another and hear a different story. The effect of this would be that the two stories would reinforce each other. Conflicting versions would be reduced, which means that someone new to the story would not find the different versions confusing, leading the potential convert to conclude that the believers simply didn’t know what they were talking about, leading her to return to the worship of Isis. Tied to this, a written story is very portable and so exportable. Yes, manuscripts were time-consuming to produce, but the fact of the matter is that Mark isn’t that long, so it could be copied and then read to many, many new people.

This, in my opinion, is why the gospels took precedence over Paul’s letters. These latter were not really intended for general circulation; they were written to specific groups to address specific circumstances. Mark’s gospel, OTOH, was general and universal. It set the tone and the outlines, digging the primary channel in which the main stream of the river would flow from that point forward. At root, the Jesus of Mark was the wonder-worker who told parables about the kingdom. The latter was neither fully nor effectively explained. Maybe this was to de-emphasize Jesus’ connexion to the Baptist; or maybe it was designed to prove Jesus’ connexion to the Baptist. In this latter case, perhaps Mark, writing from a physical as well as temporal distance, did not really understand what the Baptist had actually meant by the kingdom, thereby causing Mark to leave this part of Jesus teaching rather vague and undeveloped.

With all this, Mark was not a complete story. Far from it. Many details were missing. Being aware of this, Matthew set out to correct these deficiencies. First thing was to give Jesus a father, thereby to reduce the charges that Jesus was a bastard. Mark does not know–indeed, he does not care–who Jesus’ human father was. For Mark, Jesus was a man whom God chose at the moment when he was baptised by John. Then, and only then, he became “my son”, as God declared from the heavens. To compound the problem, Mark later calls Jesus the son of Mary (Ch 6). So Matthew has to set the record straight. So he provides Jesus with an earthly father, but goes further to provide Jesus with that most important of documents of legitimacy: a pedigree. Not only was Jesus given an earthly father, he was given a royal lineage. This provided an enormous boost to Jesus’ credibility. Jesus was not some nobody; he was the descendent of the Judahite king David (who had pretensions, however illegitimate, to the throne of Israel). This was a brilliant stroke, because it gave legitimacy to Jesus’ heritage, but also to the claim of being the Christ, the Anointed, the Messiah. This aspect of Jesus’ identity had become grafted, however imperfectly and incompletely, onto Mark’s story. This was not nearly enough for Matthew.

Aside from making it clear that Jesus was not a bastard, Matthew decided to take this all to a truly cosmic level, to demonstrate that Jesus’ birth was an event of universal significance. We are so inured to the story of the Star of Bethlehem* that I am not sure that we don’t quite grasp the enormity of this concept. Jesus was so important that the stars themselves aligned to announce his birth. That is to say, that his birth was destined from the beginning of time, so that it was written into the course of the heavens. Now, as the descendants and intellectual heirs of a millennium of absolutist philosophical thinking, we are sort of accustomed to this sort of thing, and we don’t get what it all means. To anyone of Matthew’s day, none of this would have been lost. The idea that Jesus had a star, and that it was read and understood by magoi from further east. Just so we’re clear, a magos–plural magoi, in Latin magi–was, at root, an astrologer. They were “wise” because they could read the secret language of the stars. The point to take from the episode of the Magi is that this was written before the idea of God that we take for granted did not permeate the popular conception of God to the degree it does today. God’s response to Job was, “where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?”; Paul tells us he was selected from the time he was in his mother’s womb, and talks about God laying the foundations of the cosmos, but there is not the sense of God setting out the course of things from The Beginning. This is not a Jewish conception, nor does it fit with the attitude of Free Will that took root in the thinking of the Patristic thinkers. No, what Matthew is describing is, at root, pagan Fatalism. Just as the course of the planets is fixed, so the course of history is fixed. We are allotted our role, our fate is determined, and we play out the string fundamentally unable to do anything about it.

Looking back on this now I see this is as a very big clue about Matthew’s origins. After checking to see what I said at the time, I hadn’t picked up on it then because I had not begun to piece together the bits of evidence that Matthew began life as a pagan, rather than as a Jew. After all, everyone agrees that Matthew is the most Jewish of the evangelists, and it’s widely assumed that Luke was the only pagan among the evangelists. It’s taken on faith. But having picked up on a number of other clues, the whole theme of the Star of Bethlehem is like a big, blinking neon sign that says “PAGAN !!! “. The Jews were anti-astrology, and this attitude carried over to the early Church. Astrology, and its concomitant concept of ineluctable Fate was disparaged by both Jews and strict Christians as pagan, and the latter saw it as inexorably opposed to, and completely incompatible to the idea of Free Will. So the idea of an astrological event announcing the birth of the Christian Saviour is ironic in the extreme. It’s ironic to the point of contradictory. It’s contradictory to the point that it almost seems to be the final piece of evidence necessary to prove definitively that Matthew was not raised as a Jew. Of course, most biblical scholars and clergy will doubtless disagree with me, and vehemently, and vigourously deny that Matthew was a pagan, and vociferously assert that this motif of the Star and the astrologers even suggests such a ridiculous idea, let alone proving it.

A bit of research has turned up various thoughts and interpretations of the star and of the “wise men”. Overall, there is a concerted effort to play down the role of the magoi/magi as astrologers. One recent commentator even puts the word “astrologers” in quotes, as if to sniff away the idea as preposterous. Of course, there are all of the attempts to explain this as a comet, or a supernova, or some such occurrence based on the science of astronomy. Of course, these attempts miss the point, and really need not concern us; at the moment, we are concerned with how the star is explained by biblical scholars, not astronomers. The former want to play down the role of astrology because, even today, good Christians are at least uncomfortable with, if not overtly hostile to, the notion of astrology. But the point remains that this is the base meaning of magos/magus. Like the Nile, the rivers of Mesopotamia flood each year, and being able to predict the timing of the flood was very important for agriculture. The floods are seasonal, and the seasons are related to the movement of the earth around the sun. So the sky provided a very reliable calendar, if one knew how to read it. Here is the birth of both what we call astronomy and astrology; the thinking was that if the sun and stars all determined when the rivers would flood, then of course they have significant influence over mere humans, too. So it’s very important to realize that there was no difference between the two until the later 1500. Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and other founders of astronomy were really doing what we would call astronomy. Kepler was trying to figure out the length of time the various planets “stayed” in a given constellation of the Zodiac when he discovered his Laws of Planetary Motion. 

So, all in all, the use of the Star is, I think, a fairly strong indication that Matthew was a pagan.

to be continued…

* By happenstance or coincidence or divine intervention, I’ve been writing about the Star of Bethlehem on the 24th and 25th of December. Of course, we got Luke and the shepherd who were “sore afraid” (at least in the KJV) rather than Matthew for the gospel.


Christmas 2016

Nothing says Christmas to me like Charlie  Brown.

Merry Christmas, Everyone.

Summary Matthew Chapter 28

The very long gospel of Matthew concludes with a very short Resurrection Story.  At least, the story is short by comparison with the rest of the gospel, and compared to the stories that will follow in Luke and John. Immediately this should alert us that the idea of a Resurrection story was not well-developed when Matthew wrote. The need for it was understood, but the creative wheels had not been turning very long, so the elaborations that will come with Luke and John had not evolved. It had been recognized that Mark’s story was not enough, but there had not been sufficient time for a “grass roots” oral tradition with a number of takes and characters to spring up and become incorporated into the main body of the literary tradition created by Mark and extended by Matthew.

This, I believe, is significant. It tells us that the Resurrection story came along late, despite Paul’s insistence on the risen Jesus. This, in turn, implies that Paul’s message of the risen Jesus had not truly disseminated, or permeated, or dispersed throughout the all of the various communities of Jesus’ followers. This means that, for nearly two generations, there were “Christians” (proto-Christians, anyway) who did not necessarily believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Here, I think, is where we connect with the wonder-worker tradition that was so strong in Mark. This tradition carried on, but had come under increasing pressure, especially after Mark wrote his gospel. There the wonder-worker tradition was acknowledged, and even honored, but it was starting to become submerged under the Christ tradition. But note that, in Mark, the Christ tradition did not yet include a Resurrection Story. It ended with the crucifixion, and, perhaps, the empty tomb. It is difficult to know how much of the section after Jesus’ burial was original to Mark, and how much was added later, in light of these later developments. Yes, real Christian biblical scholars, or even biblical scholars who have come out of the Christian tradition of textual analysis based on the assumption that the four gospels are telling a single story will find this contention of additions to Mark to be difficult, if not impossible, to accept.

One reason for this reluctance is easy to identify: Paul. He wrote before all of them, and his message was based on, and had as its primary focus the risen Jesus. He had temporal precedence. Given that, how could something written later still be uncertain about, or completely fail to mention that Jesus had been raised? How indeed? That question is good, but it’s not hard to answer, not even requiring much in the way of contortions or mental gymnastics. Paul and his message formed a separate tradition, one distinct from the wonder worker tradition. The latter had become aware of the Christ tradition, but the Christ tradition did not necessarily include a risen Jesus. After all, the anointed in Jewish thought was not a divine individual, but a “son of man”. It’s very tempting to see this as the “other” gospel that gets Paul so incensed when he finds that the “foolish”, or even “stupid” Galatians have fallen away from Paul’s message and been seduced by this other teaching. Paul tells us that he and James, brother of the lord, disagreed on dietary restrictions; were there other, more fundamental disagreements as well? Such as the risen Jesus? Paul would have had a very strong motive for “forgetting” about this part of the disagreement. Why would he tell his audience that he disagreed with the brother of the lord about whether the lord had been raised from the dead? To admit that such a disagreement existed, and that the brother of the lord and the nominal head of the Jerusalem assembly did not believe in the risen lord would have caused Paul some serious PR problems.

Of course, in 1 Corinthians Paul tells us how Jesus had appeared to James and Peter and the 500. But was this factual? Or was this another of Paul’s revelations? Bear in mind that Paul did not spend a lot of time hanging out in Jerusalem, no doubt in part because he and James did not agree on certain matters. Yes, Paul could have been told about how Jesus had appeared to the others, but then again, maybe not. Because let’s note that Jesus does not necessarily appear to anyone in Mark’s version. So fifteen or twenty years after Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, the Resurrection story, with its details about how Jesus appeared to his disciples was not really and completely woven into the fabric of the teachings of Jesus’ followers.

Matthew, we have seen, or at least I have suggested, set out to “correct” the record. He intended to fill in the gaps in Mark’s account, with the latter’s paucity of teachings. In Mark, Jesus worked a lot of wonders and told a few parables, but not a lot more than that. Matthew adds verse after verse of Jesus speaking; most of Chapters 5-8 is taken up with Jesus speaking. If you have a red-letter edition, you can see that page after page is almost entirely red, perhaps with a few sentences in black to provide some sort of context. And yet, even Matthew is not fully on-board with the Resurrection story. This chapter is very short compared to most; a scant twenty verses. It has the feel of a sort of hurried summary, a quick round-up. Yes, Matthew includes it, but it sorely lacks in detail. Think about what is to come in Luke and John, and then the scantiness of Matthew’s Resurrection story  becomes very noticeable. The conclusion is that this most central piece of Christian theology was largely missing for about two generations.

The other piece to take from this chapter, I believe, is the story of the women. Mary the Magdalene is the primary character, in some ways, of the burial and Resurrection narratives. Why does Jesus appear to her before almost anyone else in the story? She essentially comes out of nowhere, showing up at the foot of the cross, and then jumps directly into a leading role. This is odd. I also suspect it has to do with what she did after the death of Jesus. The most plausible explanation is that she became, if she wasn’t before, a financial supporter of the group. As such, she was rewarded with the publicity of becoming a central figure in the drama of the burial and resurrection.

Sort of corollary to the story of the Magdalene, and her role in the Resurrection narrative is the lack of emphasis on the disciples. Aside from Peter, they sort of vanish with after the Last Supper and the arrest in Gethsemane. What happened to them? They don’t reappear until Luke, really, and then a bit more emphatically in John, with the locked room and Thomas and all of that. Even the sons of Zebedee are nowhere to be found, even though their mother is at the cross with the Magdalene. Why is that? Largely, I suspect, because they were never really all that central to the story. Aside from Peter, James, and John, who among the disciples has any role in anything that Jesus did? None of them. Or, at least, none of them until Judas surfaces in the Passion narrative to serve as the foil and the villain. The implication of all of this is that there was no large group of disciples, and there certainly was no Twelve, at least during Jesus’ lifetime. Otherwise, the disciples were not really all that important to the whole mission, which is why they can simply disappear from the story, at least until they are “resurrected” by Luke, and even more so, by John.

This summary is going to be short, in part because the chapter is short. There are further lessons to be drawn, but they relate more to the gospel as a whole rather than to just the chapter. So, we’ll sign off and start ruminating on what we lessons we need to derive from the gospel as a whole.

Robber or Rebel? The Meaning of “lestes”

During the course of the two gospels, we’ve touched on the book by Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life And Times Of Jesus Of Nazareth. In that book, Aslan claims that Jesus was indeed a zealot, and that he was crucified for his rebellious activities. Two key props for his argument are that crucifixion was reserved for rebels, and that the word used to describe the two men crucified with Jesus << lestes >> specifically meant rebel.

At this point I have not done a summary view of all records of crucifixion, and have not performed a statistical analysis on the reasons why the Romans crucified these people. A famous example is the mass crucifixion of thousands of rebels following the suppression of the rebellion of Spartacus. Certainly, these men were rebels, and they were crucified in punishment. But saying only rebels were crucified is a bit of a black swan argument: no number of examples of white swans can prove that black swans don’t exist; one black swan, however, proves that they do. So, no number of crucified rebels will prove that only rebels were crucified, but even a handful of non-rebels will prove that this punishment was not reserved for this class of individuals.

The other argument he uses is that the word “lestes” specifically means ‘rebel’. Liddell and Scott, who have to be considered THE authoritative source for Greek vocabulary, disagree. So do Lewis and Short, who hold the same position for Latin vocabulary. In the Vulgate translation of this section, St Jerome translated “lestes” as “latro, latronis“*. As I have mentioned before, given that the sample size of Latin texts is much larger than that of Greek texts, seeing how the Vulgate renders a specific word can give us some clues to the meaning of the underlying Greek word, especially if the latter is rarely used. Now, the Greek word “lestes” is not terribly unusual, but I think it is still useful to see how it gets translated into Latin by St Jerome. Bear in mind that Jerome was bilingual; he was adept in Greek, even if Latin was his primary language. What word does he use?

First, I also want to point out that we have the episode of the Cleansing of the Temple to consider. Recall the “den of thieves” declamation used by Jesus? Well, the word there is “lestes“, the same word as is used of the two men crucified with Jesus. To the best of my knowledge, this passage has never been translated as “den of insurrectionists”. So this alone is almost a mortal wound to Aslan’s argument. And again, the Vulgate renders the Greek with the Latin word “latro, latronis”.

The final nail in the coffin is provided by the Latin author Apuleius. He wrote, among other things, a work called Metamorphoses, a Greek word that got taken wholesale into Latin via transliteration. It means pretty much what it does in English: a change in shape. In the Penguin edition that I have, the title is rendered as The Golden Ass, because the main action of the book involves the adventures of the main character after he has been magically, and mistakenly, transformed from a person into a donkey. In any case, shortly after his transformation, he is stolen by some bandits, who use him to haul away stolen goods. The word used? Latro, latronis. This example is even more useful than the Vulgate because it was written in the Second Century, much closer to Matthew than it was to the Vulgate. So we can have a substantial level of certainty that the word had not changed, had not undergone a metamorphosis, coming to mean simply “bandit/thief” whereas in NT times it had meant rebel.

As of this writing, I have no idea how Aslan’s book has been received in circles of biblical scholarship. I don’t know if it has been thoroughly refuted and rejected by most biblical academics. I do know, however, that it has seeped into popular consciousness. I recently had a Facebook debate with someone who put Aslan’s thesis forward as accepted fact. This is truly unfortunate. It’s also pretty much dead wrong. If this thesis has been absorbed into biblical scholarship, I despair of it even more than I did before.

* The base meaning of “latro, latronis” is “mercenary soldier”. From there it turned into “freebooter”; unpaid mercenaries had a tendency to extract their arrears of wages by plundering whomever was unfortunate enough to be at hand. This tradition was alive and well during the Thirty Years War. From there, it came to be “robber”. “bandit”, “thief”. These words are not completely interchangeable, but close enough. In particular, “bandit” has the sense of a group of outlaws living in desolate places where they’re hard to find, preying on unsuspecting travelers. Aslan tries to suggest that such bandits were actually insurrectionists, but that is simply stretching the word past its breaking point,

Matthew Chapter 28:11-20

This section concludes the chapter and the entire Gospel of Matthew. It’s been a very long, but not too strange, trip.

11 Πορευομένων δὲ αὐτῶν ἰδού τινες τῆς κουστωδίας ἐλθόντες εἰς τὴν πόλιν ἀπήγγειλαν τοῖς ἀρχιερεῦσιν ἅπαντα τὰ γενόμενα.

12 καὶ συναχθέντες μετὰ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων συμβούλιόν τε λαβόντες ἀργύρια ἱκανὰ ἔδωκαν τοῖς στρατιώταις

13 λέγοντες, Εἴπατε ὅτι Οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ νυκτὸς ἐλθόντες ἔκλεψαν αὐτὸν ἡμῶν κοιμωμένων.

14 καὶ ἐὰν ἀκουσθῇ τοῦτο ἐπὶ τοῦ ἡγεμόνος, ἡμεῖς πείσομεν [αὐτὸν] καὶ ὑμᾶς ἀμερίμνους ποιήσομεν.

15 οἱ δὲ λαβόντες τὰ ἀργύρια ἐποίησαν ὡς ἐδιδάχθησαν. Καὶ διεφημίσθη ὁ λόγος οὗτος παρὰ Ἰουδαίοις μέχρι τῆς σήμερον [ἡμέρας].

Going toward away, look! some of the guards coming to the city they announced to the high priests all the occurrences. (12) And gathering with the high priests they took counsel taking money because they gave to the soldiers, (13) saying, “Say that his disciples coming in the night stole him we being sleeping. (14) And if this was heard by the leader, we persuade him and we make you careful.”  (15) They taking the money they did as they were taught. And this story was blazed out throughout Judea until this very day.

The translation is way too literal. The upshot is that the high priests paid the guards to tell a false story. The interesting part is that, supposedly, the story was being told even to the time that Matthew wrote. Really? I’m not sure whether to pooh-pooh the idea that they were still talking about it, or to take it as “hmmm…” moment. Having just said what I said about Matthew not being likely to have new, actual historical information, I would have nerve saying that this was true. And, indeed, my initial reaction is that this is something that Matthew sort of made up. But then, why? Why would he make this up? Seems a tad improbable, but, seriously, why make this up? Why suggest that there is an alternative story out there? Doesn’t the probability lean to the side of Matthew saying this as a way of explaining, and hopefully refuting something that was out there? To refute something that people were actually saying?

Thinking about this further now that it’s had time to settle in, this little throw-away line may have huge ramifications for a lot of things. Let’s unpack this a bit. Mark gave no indication of a story like this, but then Mark didn’t really have a resurrection story. What this suggests is that the whole idea of the resurrection, and the story explaining it, only fully came into existence Mark, and before Matthew. This set of circumstances would make sense when taken in conjunction with my previous point about the writing of Mark being something of a watershed in the development of the Jesus movement. Having a written gospel spread the word more effectively, but perhaps it also caused people to ask questions, like, why was the tomb empty? What did happen to Jesus’ body? Which would lead others, less sympathetic to the cause, to suggest that the body had been stolen by his disciples. Refuting this, in turn, could have been one of the spurs that prompted Matthew to write his gospel in the first place.

Of course, so far we’ve ignored an obvious point: that Paul was talking about the resurrection long before Mark wrote his gospel. Not only is that a valid point, but it’s salient as well (a salient point is redundant). If I’m going to suggest that the resurrection story didn’t come about until after Mark, what about Paul’s preaching on this subject? I’d best have one damn good explanation for that.

This make take us back to the question of whether Mark was aware of Paul. To be honest, I am not aware of the scholarship on this, but it is entirely possible that Mark was not. If not, he could have written his gospel without knowing that Paul claimed Jesus had been raised from the dead. But then, to whom did Paul preach? To pagans. Matthew, as I see it, was a pagan and not a Jew. So did he become aware of Paul’s teaching about the resurrection from contact with a pagan church that had been influenced, if not founded, by Paul’s mission work? What I am proposing is that there were two separate traditions; indeed, there were likely, but I’m thinking of two main branches here, with however many tributaries and however fragmented the delta was. I’m suggesting that there was a Jewish tradition and a pagan tradition. Indeed, this may be a commonplace; Paul tells us that exactly this situation existed in Galatians, so it’s hardly like this is a radical suggestion. He and James were at loggerheads about the Jewish question, but what if there were other, more fundamental differences of opinion between the two? What if the Jewish tradition wasn’t big on the idea of the raising from the dead? Or, Paul was a Pharisee, who believed in this before encountering the teachings about Jesus; was James a Pharisee? Is that part of the reason the Pharisees get such special treatment in the gospels? Because the Jewish tradition didn’t agree with the Pharisees? But then Matthew, not being a Jew, really didn’t get the whole reason for the division, so he just kept up the disparagement of the Pharisees without realizing the implications?

There are a lot of pieces that seem to fit. The problem is, each piece makes the overall whole less likely, not more so. The more complicated the story, the less likely it is to be true. This would seem to be counterintuitive, but if you think in terms of contingent probabilities–C is only true if B is true, and B is only true if A is true–you may see the problem. Each piece depends on another, and each connexion represents a potential fracture point, a place where the joint is weak and the glue holding it all together can come unstuck.

11 Quae cum abiissent, ecce quidam de custodia venerunt in civitatem et nuntiaverunt principibus sacerdotum omnia, quae facta fuerant.

12 Et congregati cum senioribus, consilio accepto, pecuniam copiosam dederunt militibus

13 dicentes: “Dicite: “Discipuli eius nocte venerunt et furati sunt eum, nobis dormientibus”.

14 Et si hoc auditum fuerit a praeside, nos suadebimus ei et securos vos faciemus”.

15 At illi, accepta pecunia, fecerunt, sicut erant docti. Et divulgatum est verbum istud apud Iudaeos usque in hodiernum diem.

16 Οἱ δὲ ἕνδεκα μαθηταὶ ἐπορεύθησαν εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν εἰς τὸ ὄρος οὗ ἐτάξατο αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς,

17 καὶ ἰδόντες αὐτὸν προσεκύνησαν, οἱ δὲ ἐδίστασαν.

18 καὶ προσελθὼν ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐλάλησεν αὐτοῖς λέγων, Ἐδόθη μοι πᾶσα ἐξουσία ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ [τῆς] γῆς.

19 πορευθέντες οὖν μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, βαπτίζοντες αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος,

20 διδάσκοντες αὐτοὺς τηρεῖν πάντα ὅσα ἐνετειλάμην ὑμῖν: καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ μεθ’ ὑμῶν εἰμι πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας ἕως τῆς συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος.

But the eleven disciples went out to Galilee to the mountain where Jesus arranged for them, (17) and seeing they worshipped him but they doubted. (18) And coming forward Jesus spoke to them saying, “It was given to me all power in the sky and upon the earth. (19) So going going out all the peoples were learned, baptizing them in the name of the father and the son and the sacred breath. (20) Teaching them to watch all so much I command you. And, look! I with you I am all days until the end of the aeons”.  

So that’s it. It occurs to me that until now I’m not terribly familiar with this gospel, or at least this version of the resurrection story. To whit, they actually do go to Galilee, something of which I had not been aware, largely because this version of the Resurrection is not read all that often. One salient feature is that this whole going to Galilee was rather an ephemeral phenomenon. After Matthew, it vanishes from sight. Of the four stories, I believe that this one gets the least attention. Mark is the first, Luke is the most well-known for the same reasons we think of his nativity story in preference to Matthew’s story, which is the only alternative version.

So what happened? Not only did the idea of going to Galilee sort of fade, it faded to the point that a lot of people are not really aware of it; or is it just me? One obvious answer to that questions is that the focus of the growing movement shifted away from Galilee and towards Jerusalem. Mark had the  bit about Galilee, and Matthew followed him on that. But note that it’s like Matthew wasn’t really sure what happened in Galilee. We get Jesus sending out his disciples, so this passage has been called the Great Commission, but if it’s so great, why did Luke forget about it? Luke probably didn’t. Rather more likely is that the tradition of the church had turned towards Jerusalem, so Luke corrected Matthew to reflect this. Remember that Luke is the first evangelist who was undeniably aware of Paul; before Luke, we can’t be sure. And Paul tells us that the focus of the Jesus community after Jesus’ death was in Jerusalem, and not in Galilee; is that why Luke moved the action there? Remember, too, that Luke is the first–and only–writer to tell the stories of both the Ascension and Pentecost, the latter of which took place in Jerusalem. Then John splits the difference, and has part of Jesus’ post-resurrection career occur in Jerusalem, but then it moves back to Galilee. So there was, apparently, a pretty strong tradition tying the post-resurrection Jesus back to Galilee.

Why? Because it makes sense that people from Galilee would return there after the trauma of the loss of Jesus. But even more convincing, I think, are all the boring, mundane reasons: that’s where there homes and family and source of livelihood were. Jerusalem was a big city, and cities then, as now, are expensive. So sure, they returned to Galilee. Now here’s a thought: we’ve noted that the Magdalene appears during the Passion Story, and plays a prominent part in the Resurrection story. Perhaps this is because she provided sponsorship of the disciples–in Galilee. She would not be the first patron(ess) to get herself written into the story due to reasons of financial support. Perhaps her role did not come into prominence until after Jesus’ death. That would very nicely explain why she shows up in the narrative in the events surrounding Jesus’ death. It would also be a strong prima facie case to suggest that the Passion Narrative may have originated in the Galilean community. That is a thought that needs further consideration.

So that’s a bit of an eye-opener, I must say. And shame on me for not realizing this sooner than now. But then, this was intended as a voyage of discovery.

As for the Great Commission, the very last words of the gospel, there are a couple of points to be made. The first, of course, is that the event is a post-facto fiction, meant to explain from a point forty years after what happened in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death. It’s a foundation myth. The interesting inference that we, perhaps, can draw from this is that it suggests leadership of the community became situated in Galilee, when we know differently from Paul. What this implies, I believe, is that there was a period stretching most likely from the Destruction to the time of Luke, a period that includes Matthew, when the leadership of James, centered in Jerusalem, was either being suppressed or had largely been forgotten. Now, given Matthew’s desire to play up Jesus’ divinity, and the way he inversely downplayed the brothers of Jesus related in Mark, it’s not difficult to imagine that he may have known about the Jerusalem Community, at least to the point of being vaguely aware that it had existed; such minimal awareness, however, would have led to Matthew’s lack of value for James and his group almost as effectively as not knowing about it altogether, So I suspect Matthew did have some minimal knowledge about James, but not nearly enough for Matthew to value the role of James.

Perhaps the final point about the Great Commission is its emphasis on teaching the peoples, the non-Jews. I won’t use the term “gentile” because it does appear in either the Greek or the Latin; I’m not sure of the etymology–but I suspect it derives from the Latin gens, gentis, “peoples”, which is used in the Latin translation below. This is yet another indicator that this part of the story was created very much later than the life of Jesus, and probably even later than Mark. The first evangelist does have a few references to Jesus’ preaching to non-Jews; there is the Syro-Phoenician woman outside Tyre, for example, but the message has become much more prominent in Matthew. Think of the story of the centurion who does not believe himself worthy for Jesus to enter his home. References to non-Jews and their role in the kingdom (The Wedding Banquet; the invited guests won’t come) come early and often in Matthew. This Great Commission is the finishing touch, the pìece de résistance for this transfer of the center of gravity from Jews to pagans. Jesus himself ordained it so.

That’s it. It feels like there should be some grand words of conclusion here, but those will be saved for the summary. Thank you for your patience.

16 Undecim autem discipuli abierunt in Galilaeam, in montem ubi constituerat illis Iesus,

17 et videntes eum adoraverunt; quidam autem dubitaverunt.

18 Et accedens Iesus locutus est eis dicens: “Data est mihi omnis potestas in caelo et in terra.

19 Euntes ergo docete omnes gentes, baptizantes eos in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti,

20 docentes eos servare omnia, quaecumque mandavi vobis. Et ecce ego vobiscum sum omnibus diebus usque ad consummationem saeculi”.

Matthew Chapter 28:1-10

We have come to the final chapter of Matthew. It’s short, it deals with the Resurrection. Coming into it, I suspect that the main points of discussion will be the changes from Mark.

1Ὀψὲ δὲ σαββάτων, τῇ ἐπιφωσκούσῃ εἰς μίαν σαββάτων, ἦλθεν Μαριὰμ ἡ Μαγδαληνὴ καὶ ἡ ἄλλη Μαρία θεωρῆσαι τὸν τάφον.

After the Sabbath, at daybreak of the first of the week, came Mary the Magdalene and the other Mary to see the tomb. 

We need to stop at this moment to consider what I believe is a very significant aspect of the text. The fifth word of the sentence, <<ἐπιφωσκούσῃ>>, is a very, very rare word. In fact, in all of NT Greek, and, in fact, in ALL of Greek literature, this word occurs exactly twice. The first time is here. The second time is in Luke 23, which also deals with the death and burial of Jesus. Twice. That’s it. And people are trying to argue that Luke was not aware of Matthew? Where else did he come up with this very, extremely rare word? In fact, had Luke not used it, the usage here would have been unique in the totality of ancient Greek literature. (Can I coin the term “duoesque? No, it doesn’t really work, does it?) That Luke also used the word in approximately the same context cannot be a coincidence, can it? And this is why I’m so incredulous about people not accepting that Luke knew and used Matthew. Not only do stories overlap, but they very frequently repeat the same vocabulary. The best example is the temptation of Jesus. Yes, yes, they both use the vocabulary they both found in Q. But that means that the temptation story was present in a work that only included sayings of Jesus; and there is no way, no how, to stretch Q to include the Passion Narrative. Adding these two stories to Q is basically to stretch the concept of what Q is supposed to be, and turn it into a full-fledged gospel, which is absolutely not the point of Q at all. So it’s like I said, the point of Q, the reason it was created by scholars and is held so tenaciously is that, without it, we have absolutely nothing written about Jesus’ earthly ministry before Mark, a full thirty years later. And we lose the Good Shepherd (more on that in Luke) and the Sermon on the Mount. I can’t help that.

Just one more word on “the other Mary”. We are told she was the mother of James and Joseph. In Mark 6, we are told Jesus has brothers named James and Joses, among others. Who are these two men? Are they Matthew’s equivalent of Alexander and Rufus, members, or forebears of members of Matthew’s community? Is this James the Lesser? Because, at the crucifixion we were told that these two Marys were accompanied by the mother of the sons of Zebedee; as such, James the brother of Joses does not refer to James, the brother of John, the sons of thunder as well as Zebedee. So at the cross we had the mothers of both of the guys named James, but not the mother of Jesus. So who is this “other” Mary? And who are her sons? And why are they mentioned here? My inclination is to take them as members, or forebears of members of Matthew’s community.

1 Sero autem post sabbatum, cum illucesceret in primam sabbati, venit Maria Magdalene et altera Maria videre sepulcrum.

καὶ ἰδοὺ σεισμὸς ἐγένετο μέγας: ἄγγελος γὰρ κυρίου καταβὰς ἐξ οὐρανοῦ καὶ προσελθὼν ἀπεκύλισεν τὸν λίθον καὶ ἐκάθητο ἐπάνω αὐτοῦ.

ἦνδὲ ἡ εἰδέα αὐτοῦ ὡς ἀστραπὴ καὶ τὸ ἔνδυμα αὐτοῦ λευκὸν ὡς χιών.

ἀπὸ δὲ τοῦ φόβου αὐτοῦ ἐσείσθησαν οἱ τηροῦντες καὶ ἐγενήθησανὡς νεκροί.

And behold! There was a great earthquake! For an angel of the lord came down from the sky and coming towards rolled back the stone and sat himself upon it. (3) Indeed, the face of him (was) as lightening, and his garment white as snow. (4) From the fear of him, they shook those guarding and they became as the dead.

This is really interesting. Notice how we jump from the perspective of the women, to that of something like an omniscient narrator who can see all that is happening. This narrator saw the angel come down and roll away the stone, and the narrator saw the reaction of the guards. Remember, in Mark, what we really get is just the women finding the stone rolled away and an empty tomb; or a tomb empty of Jesus, where sits–on the right-hand side, we are told–a young–it is specified–man dressed in white. He was not called an angel. That, apparently, was not sufficient for Matthew, who needed more drama and supernatural occurrences. Recall the holy ones coming out of their tombs when Jesus died. As for the earthquake, the eastern Mediterranean area is prone to earthquakes, although the trouble spot is usually a bit further north, in Turkey. And we had one, again, when Jesus died. This one on Sunday morning could be an aftershock. Or it could be fictitious, the more likely explanation.

I’m trying to remember my HS stories. I know God stopped the sun in the sky so the Israelites could slaughter more of their enemies, and God rained down fire & brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah and did the whole Ten Plagues thing. I bring this up to compare divine manifestations in the HS with this episode, and then ask if this sort of thing seems more Jewish or pagan. Then the follow-up question is whether there’s a difference. My background, default setting is pagan, because that’s what I’ve studied, so this feels pagan, but I’m not sure there is a real difference. If pushed, I’d say this sounded more Greek than Hebrew myth, but there were Syrian myths, and Lydian and Carian myths, and…& c. So in the final analysis, this is about Matthew inserting the divine into the situation. We are reminded of Jesus’ divinity, just in case we’d forgotten.

This just in. One very familiar part of pagan thought were the divine portents that accompanied the death of Julius and then Augustus Caesar. One that I recall off the top of my head is the eagle seen flying out of the funeral pyre of Julius Caesar. I had thought this was in Suetonius, but it appears I’m mistaken. So while some of the events may have Hebrew origins, perhaps the portents that occurred in conjunction with Jesus death, and his raising do have a pagan feel about them.

2 Et ecce terrae motus factus est magnus: angelus enim Domini descendit de caelo et accedens revolvit lapidem et sedebat super eum.

3 Erat autem aspectus eius sicut fulgur, et vestimentum eius candidum sicut nix.

4 Prae timore autem eius exterriti sunt custodes et facti sunt velut mortui.

ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ ἄγγελος εἶπεν ταῖς γυναιξίν, Μὴ φοβεῖσθε ὑμεῖς, οἶδα γὰρ ὅτι Ἰησοῦν τὸν ἐσταυρωμένον ζητεῖτε:

οὐκ ἔστιν ὧδε, ἠγέρθη γὰρ καθὼς εἶπεν: δεῦτε ἴδετε τὸν τόπον ὅπου ἔκειτο.

καὶ ταχὺ πορευθεῖσαι εἴπατε τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ ὅτι Ἠγέρθη ἀπὸ τῶν νεκρῶν, καὶ ἰδοὺ προάγει ὑμᾶς εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν, ἐκεῖ αὐτὸν ὄψεσθε: ἰδοὺ εἶπον ὑμῖν.

Answering the herald said to the women, “Do not fear, know that Jesus the one crucified lives. (6) He is not here, he was raised as he said. Come here! you see the place where he lay. (7) And quickly going forth, tell his disciples that ‘I have been raised from the dead’, and look! you go forward to Galilee, where you will see him. Look! I said this to you”.

So we get a great example here of how the story has grown in the time between Mark and Matthew. In the former, yes, Jesus was raised from the dead, but there are no other supernatural events in conjunction with the event. And the man in the tomb was a man. Here, we get much more, complete and replete with earthquakes and an angel*.

I believe it was Ehrman (it might have been Mack?) who suggested that the young man in white presented by Mark was actually one of the junior members of the high priests. They wore garments whitened to an intense degree. He also suggests that the high priests removed his body, and planted the young man to tell the disciples to get out of Dodge and hie themselves back to Galilee. They had two purposes in doing this: the first, to prevent his tomb from becoming a rallying point; the second to get the disciples out of town and back to Galilee where they became Herod’s problem. This has actually struck me as a very good explanation for the events in Mark. Because, there is nothing in any of the other gospels about Jesus being in Galilee port-mortem. And yet, these are the instructions supposedly given to the women to convey to the disciples: get thee to Galilee. That really does seem a bit odd. I suspect the intent was to explain the lack of presence of Jesus’ followers in Judea and Jerusalem. Or something along those lines. Because, as we shall see (Spoiler Alert!) Jesus appears to the disciples in and around Jerusalem. There is no further mention of Galilee. [Update: appears I may be wrong about this…]

This creates a bit of a sticky wicket. Since nothing takes place in Galilee, why has this been left in here? Of course one can say that it’s here because it was in Mark, and there would be some truth to that, but it would not be terribly helpful. The most likely explanation would appear to be a vestige from an earlier, or an alternate, version of the story, perhaps one that originated in the Galilean community. In this vein, let’s notice that these women, who are on their way to the tomb, followed Jesus from Galilee. Does this injunction from the herald of the lord to return to Galilee represent their divine instructions for the founding of the community? That seems plausible, maybe even likely, and it effectively explains the presence of these two elements in the story, and provides a window into how the story was crafted over time. This may be one of the traditions that Mark found, that he incorporated into his mosaic, or tapestry, or whatever unifying metaphor works best.

While this hypothesis may explain some of the pieces, there is one truly serious problem with this whole chain of events and its explanation: there probably was no tomb. As someone crucified, Jesus was probably thrown into a mass grave. I’ve read that in a couple of places, one of them being one of the books of JD Crossan. If there was no tomb, then this story and any alternate versions would have been crafted with the particular perspective of the community that created them, which is why we get the Galilean element. Perhaps we can go deeper into the implications of all this in the chapter summary.

[* Note: I’m reading Xenophon, and there are angels by the score running back and forth between the Greeks and the king. Except they aren’t angels; they are heralds. Here we have another great example of a non-particularly-specific Greek word that has come into English with a very precise and divine meaning. Like dunking. Or baptizing. Remember “Baptizin’ Donuts”? The work in Greek means herald, or messenger, and it was often used of those who negotiated on behalf of another group. In English, the word has come to mean only a messenger from God, and the messenger part is not foremost; it’s a divine creature with a life of its own.] 

5 Respondens autem angelus dixit mulieribus: “ Nolite timere vos! Scio enim quod Iesum, qui crucifixus est, quaeritis.

6 Non est hic: surrexit enim, sicut dixit. Venite, videte locum, ubi positus erat.

7 Et cito euntes dicite discipulis eius: “Surrexit a mortuis et ecce praecedit vos in Galilaeam; ibi eum videbitis”. Ecce dixi vobis ”.

καὶ ἀπελθοῦσαι ταχὺ ἀπὸ τοῦ μνημείου μετὰ φόβου καὶ χαρᾶς μεγάλης ἔδραμον ἀπαγγεῖλαι τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ.

καὶ ἰδοὺ Ἰησοῦς ὑπήντησεν αὐταῖς λέγων, Χαίρετε. αἱ δὲπροσελθοῦσαι ἐκράτησαν αὐτοῦ τοὺς πόδας καὶ προσεκύνησαν αὐτῷ.

10 τότε λέγει αὐταῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Μὴ φοβεῖσθε: ὑπάγετε ἀπαγγείλατε τοῖς ἀδελφοῖς μου ἵνα ἀπέλθωσιν εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν, κἀκεῖ με ὄψονται.

And quickly going out from the tomb with great fear and great joy, they ran to announce to his disciples. And look! Jesus met them, saying, “Greetings. They approaching him, the took hold of his feet and prostrated (themselves before) him. (10) Then Jesus said to  them, “Do not fear. Get up and announce to my brothers in order to go away to Galilee, and there they will see me”.

We are back to the Galilee injunction, and this time it’s Jesus delivering it. The angel wasn’t enough; the word had to come directly from Jesus. This also represents an escalation of the divine element, and the expansion of Jesus’ post-mortem role. These are both excellent examples of the way legends accumulate material as the progress through time. People “remember” things, or think they do, or hear things and interpret–or misunderstand–them as they repeat the anecdotes. Plus, you get into “if it ain’t true, it ought to be”. This is called myth. Everyone loves a good story. No doubt cultural anthropologists, or mythographers, or experts in folklore and oral tradition have a term for this sort of augmentation. But this simple comparison here shows the process in action. It seems a bit absurd how so many biblical scholars will assert–presumably with a straight face; can’t tell from reading what they say–that Luke and John preserve independent traditions. There is some possibility, outside as it may be, that Matthew has some new material that could be traced back to Jesus, and so just might be historical. For Luke and John, however, and really for most of Matthew, anything “new” is a tradition that was created some time after the fact, most of it after Mark.

It occurs to me that the creation of Mark may have been a turning point in the history of what became Christianity. It is very possible that having a coherent account of Jesus’ life–or at least his ministry in Mark’s case; Matthew and Luke would add the biographical details–really helped the movement gain ground among the pagans. Conversion of Jews was probably more or less moribund even by the time of Paul; which would help explain why he devoted himself to the pagans. By the time of the death of James, brother of Jesus, I would expect that the ministry to convert Jews had pretty well ceased operation. The eventual outcome of this would be the ugly anti-Semitism that has marred so much of Christian history. We did not see it in Mark, at least not explicitly. It’s explicit in Matthew.

But back to Mark. Having a written account doubtless helped tell the story to new groups. This would create new members. One of the results of this would be a desire to fill in some of the many gaps in Mark; and there are very many gaps, the most glaring and gaping being the paucity of Jesus’ teachings. So people started to fill in these gaps: a nativity story, fleshing out the temptation story, adding the Sermon on the Mount and a bunch of parables. Luke will take this further. The result of this is that the focusing of the disparate traditions achieved by Mark was now impossible; the traditions splintered and then splintered again, to the point that we get Gospels of Pilate and Peter and Judas. Elaine Pagels treats this topic of continued revelation very nicely in The Gnostic Gospels, describing how what had become the Church had to suppress these new revelations, eventually setting the number of canonical works and shoving the rest into the dustbin of history. So this process started in earnest, I believe, with Matthew. Luke took it to new lengths, adding a whole appendage about Paul. John did much the same, inventing stories and things Jesus said in order to create a treatment more theological than biographical or historical. And after Luke and John there would be dozens of others; we’ve found a number of them in reasonably complete form, and others in small fragments. Most assuredly there were dozens–hundreds?–more that have been lost irretrievably. 

8 Et exeuntes cito de monumento cum timore et magno gaudio cucurrerunt nuntiare discipulis eius.

9 Et ecce Iesus occurrit illis dicens: “Avete”. Illae autem accesserunt et tenuerunt pedes eius et adoraverunt eum.

10 Tunc ait illis Iesus: “Nolite timere; ite, nuntiate fratribus meis, ut eant in Galilaeam et ibi me videbunt”.

Summary Matthew Chapter 27

In some ways it seems like there really shouldn’t be too much to say about this chapter. It starts with the trial before Pilate, and ends with the women taking note of where Jesus’ tomb is. The amount of theology in the chapter is fairly minimal. There are some topics that crop up, like who the women were, or whether the Resurrection Story was invented before or after Paul, but the context of this chapter is not necessarily where these topics are best discussed. The Resurrection Story really belongs in the next chapter.

Then, too, is the idea of the historicity of the events described. With a few, very minor, exceptions, there is probably nothing in this chapter that has any basis in history. Most assuredly almost none of the events described occurred in any real-life setting. The story we are told is pure drama, with perhaps a didactic undertone, that’s designed to present the situation in a very particular way. There is almost nothing in the chapter that we’ve just read that struck me as even vaguely realistic. Pilate executed a lot of people according to Josephus; and remember, Josephus was a Roman collaborator and wannabe, not the sort that’s likely to darken the picture overmuch. So the idea that Pilate had to be coaxed into condemning Jesus is absurd on the face of it. Then there is the whole thing with Barabbas, which is attested absolutely nowhere else. I suspect Simon of Cyrene was devised by Mark’s circle as an introduction for Rufus and Alexander. That Jesus was tried by Pilate personally is highly unlikely; he didn’t have the time to try every common criminal that he had crucified.

And really, in the end, that’s what it comes down to: why was Jesus killed? We keep coming back to that. A part of the reason this happens, and perhaps a big part, is that the Passion Narrative was designed to answer that very question. The problem is that it doesn’t answer it convincingly. We are supposed to believe that the Temple authorities were jealous or resentful (phthonos) of Jesus. Why? According to the narrative, he spent about a week of his life in Jerusalem. It seems unlikely that they had reason even to be aware of him, let alone resentful and jealous, of Jesus before he set foot in Jerusalem, and even then the narrative is hard-pressed to come up with a reason. The idea that it was due to Jesus’ disruption of the commerce is wholly inconsistent with the rest of the narrative. We are supposed to believe that Jesus “cleansed the Temple” and then came back the next day and held a civil, if somewhat strained, discussion with members of the priesthood. Had Jesus caused a ruckus, he would have been arrested on the spot. He wasn’t. Based on what Josephus said in The Jewish War, the Temple authorities may have been ceded the power by Rome to execute Jesus themselves. Instead, we have to go through this elaborate and convoluted story to explain how the Jews were really responsible for Jesus’ death, even though the Romans obviously carried it out. The Jews did not crucify.

So why?

Perhaps the only thing more embarrassing to the followers of Jesus than his execution, was the idea that they could not explain why he was crucified. Bad enough that the Messiah, the Anointed of God, had been executed; that they cannot provide a reason for this, that it happened just because, is truly squirm-inducing. I do believe it happened, that he was crucified; there truly is no reason to make that up. But why? That’s really the issue. That we don’t know leaves us with a choice: either the later (say, a decade after his death) did not know, or they did not say. Which is worse? Either of these, I think, indicates a pretty trivial cause. If they did not know, it means that it was something that probably just happened; Jesus was in the wrong place at the wrong time and pissed off the wrong Roman. Case closed. That’s about all it took. Or, if they did know and didn’t say, to me this leads to a pretty similar conclusion: they didn’t want to tell us because it was so trivial, not the sort of thing that should lead to the death of a cosmically-significant individual.

There is a case to be made that the story we have was meant to cover up Jesus’ revolutionary tendencies, to exculpate him in the eyes of the Romans after the destruction of the Temple. On the surface this seems to have a certain amount of plausibility, especially since that is the purpose of the Passion Narrative, to throw the blame on the Jews. And this would fit in with the whole “King of the Jews” accusation, and tie in with the concept of the Messiah as a military leader; unfortunately, I don’t think it really stands up under too much scrutiny. There is no indication of unrest in Judea or Galilee in the 30s. It is possible that Jesus tried, but failed so miserably that no one considered it worth mentioning. In which case we’re back to the situation of the previous paragraph, in which Jesus is just some common low-life, too insignificant to be able to cause any real damage. Bad enough that he was a revolutionary, but worse is that he was a total failure. I’m thinking Life Of Brian levels of ineptitude, someone who could not even be considered dangerous, but instead was simply risible. Ouch.

We have to keep coming back to Paul. Was he aware of the Passion Narrative in anything like the form we have it? Paul was aware of the idea of the Last Supper, and he puts the blessing and sharing of the bread and wine on the night before he was arrested. Is this the historical kernel? Did the evangelists get it from Paul? Or was this the one part of the whole story that has a basis in fact? Either is possible, and the latter seems even likely. But this has an implication: if Paul knew that the dinner with the disciples happened on the night before he was arrested, we might reasonably infer that Paul may have known the cause of the arrest? Admittedly, that’s a pretty big jump, but it’s not impossible, either. The real problem with Paul is that he pretty much makes stuff up and then ascribes it to revelation. He did not learn his gospel from humans, but directly from God through Jesus. So did he hear about the arrest of Jesus, and the implementation of the Last Supper via human tradition or through another revelation? Given Paul’s emphasis on the latter, I would tend to suspect that his version of the Last Supper came through revelation. It’s worth remembering that Paul did not spend a lot of time hanging out with established communities; he founded them. And he spent a fair bit of time in Asia (the Roman province thereof; modern Turkey) and Greece, and not so much in Syria, Judea, or Galilee. As such, he was out of the loop of the main sources of tradition. That’s not to say he never heard any of the oral stories told, but we’re better off to assume that he learned less, rather than more from such traditions. The result of all this speculation is that, to me anyway, it seems unlikely that Paul really had any concrete information, and that what he’s sharing is more of his own personal insight. From there, I think we can safely infer that he probably did not know the reason for Jesus’ execution, in part because he really would have considered such fleshly concerns to be, frankly, irrelevant. Didn’t know, didn’t care, didn’t matter. What mattered was that Jesus was raised from the dead, and not the series of events that led to his death.

So, for a lot of reasons, the entire Passion Narrative seems pretty much a pious fiction. There is almost nothing that we can take away from the story and feel confident that it rests on solid–or even shaky–historical foundations. So given that this story consumed one long chapter and one very long chapter of the gospel, what have we gained? Since we’ve sorted through all the detritus and rejected most of it, there is one very, very important bit of information that Matthew presents that we must count as among one of the more significant revelations of the gospel. I refer to the acceptance of blood guilt by “the Jews”, the crowd that was supposedly clamoring for Jesus’ execution on Friday morning. Of course, none of this happened, but Matthew added the acceptance of this guilt, on themselves and their children, and this has had an enormous and decidedly horrific influence on subsequent history. Why did Matthew do this? Obviously, to ensure that the Romans could not, or would not be blamed. But the thing is, it’s no longer the immediate aftermath of the Jewish War as it was when Mark wrote; things had settled, a new generation of Romans and Jews had come to the fore, the Temple was gone, so much of the animosity that Romans had felt for Jews had probably dissipated. So why did Matthew feel compelled to take the whole absolution of the Romans and assumption of guilt by the Jews to this entirely new level?

That question, of course, can never be answered with any degree of real satisfaction. All I can do is offer my opinions on the matter. First, I believe that this is, if not proof positive, then a strong indication that Matthew, indeed, began life as a pagan. I believe he was a God-fearer, who studied at a synagogue, but who then turned to Jesus and felt a wave of anger at the Jews for having rejected Jesus. The “zeal of a convert” is a well-worn truism; think of what might happen i that zealousness turned sour. That is, I think, what we’re seeing in that statement of Matthew, that Crossan also recognizes as extremely unfortunate and as a root cause of so much subsequent anti-Semitisim. “Let it be on us and our children” is the curse of a bitter and angry man. I don’t think one turns on one’s own background and heritage with such a degree of savagery. I think this kind of vitriol is reserved for The Other.

And that, I believe, is the message we should take from the Passion Story.

Matthew Chapter 27:55-66

55 ησαν δὲ ἐκεῖ γυναῖκες πολλαὶ ἀπὸ μακρόθεν θεωροῦσαι, αἵτινες ἠκολούθησαν τῷ Ἰησοῦ ἀπὸ τῆς Γαλιλαίας διακονοῦσαι αὐτῷ:

56 ἐν αἷς ἦν Μαρία ἡ Μαγδαληνὴ καὶ Μαρία ἡ τοῦἸακώβου καὶ Ἰωσὴφ μήτηρ καὶ ἡ μήτηρ τῶν υἱῶν Ζεβεδαίου.

There were many women from afar beholding, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, attending to him. (56) Among them was Mary the Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

Conspicuous in her absence is Mary, mother of Jesus. Nor was she there in Mark, nor will she be there in Luke, although she is certainly present in John, inspiring any number of beautiful pieces of music entitled “Stabat Mater”–the mother standing at the foot of the cross. Mark says that the second Mary is the mother of James the Younger and Joses, although it’s possible that the latter is a variation of Joseph. Luke does not name the women until they are at the empty tomb when he names Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of James. John specifies that “his (Jesus’) mother” stood at the cross with her sister, named Mary who was married to Clopas, and Mary the Magdalene. Through it all, Mary Magdalene is the only one who remains constant. That is a very interesting bit of information. Why? Why her? Why her, over and above the mother of Jesus? First of all, let’s dispense with the whole prostitute thing. There is no biblical evidence for that. This designation sounds like a slur invented by later tradition to discredit the Magdalene’s role, whatever that was.

I have read suggestions that perhaps Mary M was sort of Jesus’ patron, or patroness. That is, she helped support Jesus financially so that he could spend his time preaching and teaching, and not have to waste time making money. There is one thing in conjunction with this: men married when they were a bit older, but women were usually married right after puberty to assure their virginity. They didn’t have time to be sexually active before they got married off, so the groom could be reasonably certain he was getting a virgin. (This is a large part of the reason that noblewomen in the Middle Ages were often sequestered in a convent right until the day of the wedding.) So an older man and a young girl is a recipe for young widows. Paul was very solicitous about such women, exhorting them not to remarry. Why? Because if they did remarry, their property would transfer to the new husband. If they didn’t marry, they could use the money to support the fledgling church. Was the Magdalene such a widow? A woman of some means? It’s not out of the question. I don’t put much stock in the idea that she and Jesus were married. Had that been the case, I believe the later tradition would have gone much, much further, and been way more vicious than just claiming she was a prostitute. I don’t see any real problems with her being a sponsor of Jesus. It’s embarrassing enough for Jesus to be supported by a woman for later tradition to invent the prostitute thing, but not so blatant that she had to be thoroughly discredited and perhaps obliterated from the record. This would certainly help explain how and why she had followed Jesus from Galilee.

After the Magdalene, we are left with what author John Green would call “An Abundance of Marys” (My apologies to Mr Green). The place to start is the discrepancies among the evangelists. Why do we have so many variations on the identity of these women? That is a fairly simple question. The discrepancy arose because there was no strong, single tradition about who these women were. With no actual evidence, we get speculation, just as we get speculation on the names of the “Twelve Apostles”. No one actually knew their names. Indeed, no one actually knew if there were women watching. So the tradition got creative. And then it got splintered. The simplest solution to the disagreement is that each evangelist stood at the end of a separate tradition. This sort of thing gets biblical scholars all excited, because it allows them to say that the later evangelists had independent information, giving them real historical credibility. They can–and do–say this, but it doesn’t mean they are correct.

The more difficult question is this: Why, if both Matthew and Luke read Mark, why the different names and/or identities for the Marys? Does this not, indeed, point to the likelihood of independent traditions? Doesn’t this put a rather large hole in the idea of direct affiliation? Not necessarily. One fairly simple solution is that the different Marys were interchanged as sort of a shout-out to members of the community to which each evangelist lived. We saw this with Mark naming Simon of Cyrene as the father of Rufus and Alexander. We don’t have to take this at face value; later tradition said that Jesus was related to Joseph of Arimathea. The thing is, the later evangelists were aware of Mark, but they obviously did not follow him on every detail. Had they done so, we’d have had three versions of Mark and nothing else. That is not what we have; from the differences we can safely–I believe–infer that they did not intend simply to follow Mark. I would argue that, in particular Matthew and John, intended to supersede Mark. (Luke, I think, is sui generis for several reasons, but more on that when we get to him.)

While I was aware that there have been all sorts of gyrations to synchronize the identities of the various women named Mary, but I had not been aware of what is called the “Three Marys” conundrum. This theory suggests (“argue” is too strong a word; there is no evidence that can be used to construct an actual argument) that Magdalene, the wife of Clopas, and the sister of Lazarus are all the same person. I won’t go into this; it’s all pure speculation. I had entertained the idea that the sons of Zebedee were actually Jesus’ half-brothers, so that the James always hanging around with Jesus, Peter, and John would have none other than James the Just, the brother of the Lord. However, in different accounts we have Magdalene in the same place at the same time as the mother of the sons of Zebedee (see above) and with Mary, wife of Clopas (Luke), so neither of these ideas really hold water.

This is where the whole outlook of biblical scholarship causes problems. Again, the unchallenged assumption is that the evangelists were all concerned to tell the same story that was ultimately based on a single set of factually accurate data. This is why they twist themselves into pretzels to reconcile “facts” that are not facts at all, but pieces of the legend. As such, they are very plastic. We see this process continuing on into the non-canonical works like Gospel of Peter, which has the trial take place before Herod Antipas, and not Pilate, and has the whole body of Jewish elders, and Pilate, at the tomb to witness the Resurrection. The evangelists were not concerned with who the women at the cross were; although I would suggest that the Magdalene has a fair claim to historical authenticity, at least as a person, if not someone at the foot of the cross. 

55 Erant autem ibi mulieres multae a longe aspicientes, quae secutae erant Iesum a Galilaea ministrantes ei;

56 inter quas erat Maria Magdalene et Maria Iacobi et Ioseph mater et mater filiorum Zebedaei.

57 Ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης ἦλθεν ἄνθρωπος πλούσιος ἀπὸ Ἁριμαθαίας, το ὔνομα Ἰωσήφ, ὃς καὶ αὐτὸς ἐμαθητεύθη τῷ Ἰησοῦ:

58 οὗτος προσελθὼν τῷ Πιλάτῳ ᾐτήσατο τὸ σῶμα τοῦ Ἰησοῦ. τότε ὁ Πιλᾶτος ἐκέλευσεν ἀποδοθῆναι.

59 καὶ λαβὼν τὸ σῶμα ὁἸωσὴφ ἐνετύλιξεν αὐτὸ [ἐν] σινδόνι καθαρᾷ,

60 καὶ ἔθηκεν αὐτὸ ἐν τῷ καινῷ αὐτοῦ μνημείῳ ὃ ἐλατόμησεν ἐν τῇ πέτρᾳ, καὶ προσκυλίσας λίθον μέγαν τῇ θύρᾳ τοῦ μνημείου ἀπῆλθεν.

61 ἦν δὲ ἐκεῖ Μαριὰμ ἡ Μαγδαληνὴ καὶ ἡ ἄλλη Μαρία καθήμεναι ἀπέναντι τοῦ τάφου.

It having become evening, a wealthy man from Arimathea, his name Joseph, who himself had learned from Jesus, (58) he approaching Pilate asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered that it be given (to him). (59) And taking the body Joseph wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, (60) and placed it in a new tomb of his which was cut into the rock, and rolled a great rock in the door of the tomb he went away. (61) There was Miriam the Magdalene and the other Mary sitting, they went away from the tomb.

Not a whole lot of startling revelations there. The most salient point is that Magdalene is considered to be the prime mover in the action of observing Jesus’ tomb. This would be consistent with her role as a prominent financial backer of the movement. Then, as now, money talked, and it the person paying the piper got to call the tune. And notice how she’s relegated her companion to the role of “the other Mary”, no longer important enough to be named.

Despite my often harsh criticism, there are points where I strongly agree with JD Crossan. He does have a better historical sense than many biblical scholars, which isn’t necessarily saying much. His point is that, as a common criminal, the body of Jesus would very likely have been tossed into a common grave pit with a hundred other victims of crucifixion. The result would have been that there simply was no tomb that could then have been found empty. This seems very likely; however, it does not address–at least effectively, IMO–where the whole story of a resurrection came from if there were no empty tomb. The undeniable fact is that the story did start somewhere. So what to make of this?

One very large hint can be derived from the first witness we have to testify to the Resurrection. No, not Mark; the first witness is Paul. He’s the one who told the story of the Resurrected Jesus a full generation before Mark. And there are a couple of things to remember about Paul’s story. Perhaps the most significant is that he says that Jesus appeared to him, just as he had appeared to the Twelve, and to James, and all the rest. This is a huge deal, because Paul didn’t come along until a decade after Jesus had been executed. This is much too late for him to have been with Peter and the rest. So the implication is that Jesus’ may not have risen in the way that we tend to picture it. Bodily? Yes; Paul was a Pharisee and Josephus tells us they believed in the resurrection of the body. But Paul also describes a resurrection body that is not at all the same as a physical body, which implies that our conception, and that of the evangelists, of the rising may not be quite accurate. We may be looking at this a bit too literally. Now, much as I’d love to, this is not the time for a real consideration of this topic. For the moment, suffice it to say that, for Paul, the empty tomb was simply not necessary.

Which brings us to the real point. Since Paul was not concerned with the physical events of the crucifixion, and was not concerned that the earthly body actually came from a tomb where he had been laid after his physical death, the implication is that the story we have of the Passion and Resurrection may very well have been invented some time after Paul. That’s not a slam-dunk certainty, but I believe it’s the best fit for the facts. To make that determination, we have to ask if the idea of the resurrection pre-dated Paul. That, of course, seems an outrageous suggestion, since the foundation-stone of Christianity is the Resurrection. Without that, Jesus is just another wise man. But remember, Mark originally had no true resurrection story; the oldest mss end with the empty tomb, and a man dressed in white telling the Magdalene and the other women that Jesus has been raised and gone ahead of them to Galilee. I think this, together with Paul, is a good indication that there was no Resurrection story until…perhaps until Matthew wrote the one we will read.

57 Cum sero autem factum esset, venit homo dives ab Arimathaea nomine Ioseph, qui et ipse discipulus erat Iesu.

58 Hic accessit ad Pilatum et petiit corpus Iesu. Tunc Pilatus iussit reddi.

59 Et accepto corpore, Ioseph involvit illud in sindone munda

60 et posuit illud in monumento suo novo, quod exciderat in petra, et advolvit saxum magnum ad ostium monumenti et abiit.

61 Erat autem ibi Maria Magdalene et altera Maria sedentes contra sepulcrum.

62 Τῇ δὲ ἐπαύριον, ἥτις ἐστὶν μετὰ τὴν παρασκευήν, συνήχθησαν οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι πρὸς Πιλᾶτον

63 λέγοντες, Κύριε, ἐμνήσθημεν ὅτι ἐκεῖνος ὁ πλάνος εἶπεν ἔτι ζῶν, Μετὰ τρεῖς ἡμέρας ἐγείρομαι.

64 κέλευσον οὖν ἀσφαλισθῆναι τὸν τάφον ἕως τῆς τρίτης ἡμέρας, μήποτε ἐλθόντες οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ κλέψωσιν αὐτὸν καὶ εἴπωσιν τῷ λαῷ, Ἠγέρθη ἀπὸ τῶν νεκρῶν, καὶ ἔσται ἡ ἐσχάτη πλάνη χείρων τῆς πρώτης.

65 ἔφη αὐτοῖς ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Ἔχετε κουστωδίαν: ὑπάγετε ἀσφαλίσασθε ὡς οἴδατε.

66 οἱ δὲ πορευθέντες ἠσφαλίσαντο τὸν τάφον σφραγίσαντες τὸν λίθον μετὰ τῆς κουστωδίας.

On the morrow, after the preparation,  the high priests and the Pharisees convened before Pilate (63) saying, “Lord, remember that this impostor said yet living, ‘after three days I am being raised’. Order therefore to be secured the tomb until the third day, lest coming his disciples steal him and say to the people, ‘He was raised from the dead, and will be the last deceit worse than the first”.  (65) Said to them Pilate, “You may have a custodian. Go out you secure as you see (i.e., see fit). (66) They going out secured the tomb, sealing the stone with the custodian.

First of all, this is the only recorded usage of “custodian” in all of Greek literature. However, it is very common in Latin, from which language it was transliterated into Greek, as Caesar became “Kaisar”. In effect, we are dealing with a something like a technical term that Matthew swallowed whole.  The implication is that Matthew managed to be aware of a Latin term. This isn’t like “kaisar”, which was moved wholesale into Greek; this is an absolute one-off. No doubt he got it orally, he heard the word spoken, then transliterated it by sound. But where was he that he was in a position to hear the word? Tradition places Matthew in Antioch, and this city would have been the permanent residence of the Roman legion stationed in the region. So that does work.

Then there is the issue with the ‘three days’. Strictly speaking, Jesus was in the tomb for way less than 48 hours (3:00 pm Friday to early Sunday morning), so Jesus was not raised “after three days”. He was raised on the third day. This is a very technical thing, but I think it demonstrates what happens when one tries to line up an ex-post-facto story with a prophecy: there is a certain amount of slippage. Perhaps I’m picking nits here, but this has always bothered me more than no doubt it should.  And too, the reaction of the high priests is that they expect the event to come on the third day, since they ask for the custodian, not when Jesus was buried, but the next day, almost as if they knew (wink-wink) that the raising would take place the following day.

This is potentially interesting. The “preparation” was for the Sabbath; that means that the high priests came to Pilate on the Sabbath. My understanding of First Century Judaism is pretty limited, but my understanding is that Jews in general, and priests in particular, were not supposed to bestir themselves on the Sabbath. That was why they had to prepare: they had to pre-do everything that they would need on the Sabbath. And it is also my understanding that they would have been especially reluctant to go visit a Gentile and risk ritual impurity. But, I could be wrong about that.

That’s really about it. There are some threads to be collected in the summary.

62 Altera autem die, quae est post Parascevem, convenerunt principes sacerdotum et pharisaei ad Pilatum

63 dicentes: “ Domine, recordati sumus quia seductor ille dixit adhuc vivens: “Post tres dies resurgam”.

64 Iube ergo custodiri sepulcrum usque in diem tertium, ne forte veniant discipuli eius et furentur eum et dicant plebi: “Surrexit a mortuis”, et erit novissimus error peior priore ”.

65 Ait illis Pilatus: “ Habetis custodiam; ite, custodite, sicut scitis ”.

66 Illi autem abeuntes munierunt sepulcrum, signantes lapidem, cum custodia.