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.


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 December 25, 2016, in gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel, Matthew's Gospel, passion story, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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