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.