Category Archives: Chapter 17

Matthew Chapter 18:21-34

21 Τότε προσελθὼν ὁ Πέτρος εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Κύριε, ποσάκις ἁμαρτήσει εἰς ἐμὲ ὁἀδελφός μου καὶ ἀφήσω αὐτῷ; ἕως ἑπτάκις;

22 λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Οὐ λέγω σοι ἕως ἑπτάκις ἀλλὰ ἕως ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά.

Then approaching, Peter said to him, “Lord, how many times shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Until seven?” (22) Jesus said to him, “Not, I say to you, seven times, but seventy-seven times”.

Note that this does not say “seventy times seven”. Apparently that was a convention of the KJV, and it stuck for several hundred years. It appears some more recent translations are rendering this as “seventy-seven” now. That’s a whole lot less than 490 times. But of course the point is not to affix a specific number to the forgiveness, but to indicate that, well, you should be forgiving a lot.

Did Jesus say this? I see, prima facie, no reason why he didn’t. Nihil obstat, as it were. This was printed in books that had the Vatican seal of approval; it means something like “nothing stands in the way”. And so here. There is really nothing that overtly precludes Jesus saying this. The exact set-up may be fictional, but the words themselves–or at least the sense behind them–could easily be authentic. Whether they are or not is a different matter, but I don’t think the possibility can simply be dismissed.

As for the thought behind the words, once again the sensibility is easily derived from Judaism. Stephen A Gellar, in the quotes found in Religion in Human Evolution, argues that the transformation of Judaism occurred when the covenant was seen to be between God and the individual Jews, rather than between God and Israel. And God was endlessly forgiving towards Israel; as such, it’s but a step to forgiveness extended by God to individual Jews. From there, it’s only another short step to forgiveness extended between Jews, or between people in general. Between siblings, whether of blood, culture, or religion. So once again, the thought expressed may have a novel twist, but it’s not especially revolutionary. As such, it could easily be something that Jesus actually did say. Nihil obstat.

21 Tunc accedens Petrus dixit ei: “ Domine, quotiens peccabit in me frater meus, et dimittam ei? Usque septies? ”.

22 Dicit illi Iesus: “ Non dico tibi usque septies sed usque septuagies septies.

23 Διὰ τοῦτο ὡμοιώθη ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ βασιλεῖ ὃς ἠθέλησεν συνᾶραι λόγον μετὰ τῶν δούλων αὐτοῦ.

“In this way the kingdom of the heavens resembles to a man who comes before a king to give an account with his  slaves.

This is the opening to a parable, which will take up the rest of the chapter. Comment is deferred until the end. Unless something that demands immediate attention should appear.

23 Ideo assimilatum est regnum caelorum homini regi, qui voluit rationem ponere cum servis suis.

24 ἀρξαμένου δὲ αὐτοῦ συναίρειν προσηνέχθη αὐτῷ εἷς ὀφειλέτης μυρίων ταλάντων.

“And he having begun to take up (the matter),  (a slave) was brought to him regarding owing ten thousand talents. 

The word is “myriad”, which literally means 10,000. The Latin agrees, and all of my crib translations render it as ten thousand. This is an incredibly enormous amount of money; on the order of millions of dollars. It’s such a large sum one wonders if it shouldn’t just be translated as “an enormous amount of money”, or something such.

24 Et cum coepisset rationem ponere, oblatus est ei unus, qui debebat decem milia talenta.

25 μὴ ἔχοντος δὲ αὐτοῦ ἀποδοῦναι ἐκέλευσεν αὐτὸν ὁ κύριος πραθῆναι καὶ τὴν γυναῖκα καὶ τὰ τέκνα καὶ πάντα ὅσα ἔχει, καὶ ἀποδοθῆναι.

“But he not having it, the lord ordered him to be handed over to be sold, and his wife and all his children however many he had, and he was given over.

As I said, this was a huge amount of money; I’m not sure that selling the whole family would recoup the debt, so this was to a large degree punitive. 

25 Cum autem non haberet, unde redderet, iussit eum dominus venumdari et uxorem et filios et omnia, quae habebat, et reddi.

26 πεσὼν οὖν ὁ δοῦλος προσεκύνει αὐτῷ λέγων,Μακροθύμησον ἐπ’ ἐμοί, καὶ πάντα ἀποδώσω σοι.

“Falling therefore the slave groveled before him (the lord) saying, ‘Have mercy upon me, and I will give everything over to you (will repay the debt)’.

As stated, selling the whole family would not recoup the full monetary loss, so this is a tempting offer.

26 Procidens igitur servus ille adorabat eum dicens: “Patientiam habe in me, et omnia reddam tibi”.

27 σπλαγχνισθεὶς δὲ ὁ κύριος τοῦ δούλου ἐκείνου ἀπέλυσεν αὐτόν, καὶ τὸ δάνειον ἀφῆκεν αὐτῷ.

“Taking pity upon this slave he released him, and the debt was removed from him.

A tad curious, since the slave bought his freedom by promising to pay the debt. But, this is Truth, not realism. Oddly, the NT Greek dictionary I use does not have << δάνειον >> in it. Liddell & Scott provide this as an Hellenistic form.

27 Misertus autem dominus servi illius dimisit eum et debitum dimisit ei.

28 ἐξελθὼν δὲ ὁ δοῦλος ἐκεῖνος εὗρεν ἕνα τῶν συνδούλων αὐτοῦ ὃς ὤφειλεν αὐτῷ ἑκατὸν δηνάρια, καὶ κρατήσας αὐτὸν ἔπνιγεν λέγων, Ἀπόδος εἴ τι ὀφείλεις.

“Exiting, the slave found one of his fellow slaves who owed to him a hundred denarii, and he seizing him, he choked him saying, ‘Give me what you owe’.   

“Denarii”, plural for “denarius” is the root of the English word “penny”. Which is why you purchase 10 d (ten penny) nails. The point is, this is not a large sum overall, and it’s a trifle compared to 10,000 talents.

28 Egressus autem servus ille invenit unum de conservis suis, qui debebat ei centum denarios, et tenens suffocabat eum dicens: “Redde, quod debes!”.

29 πεσὼν οὖν ὁ σύνδουλος αὐτοῦ παρεκάλει αὐτὸν λέγων, Μακροθύμησον ἐπ’ ἐμοί, καὶ ἀποδώσω σοι.

“Falling, the fellow-slave beseeched him saying, “Have pity on me, and I will give to you”.

29 Procidens igitur conservus eius rogabat eum dicens: “Patientiam habe in me, et reddam tibi”.

30 ὁ δὲ οὐκ ἤθελεν, ἀλλὰ ἀπελθὼν ἔβαλεν αὐτὸν εἰς φυλακὴν ἕως ἀποδῷ τὸ ὀφειλόμενον.

“But he did not wish this, but going out he threw him into gaol until he might give over the debt.

There is no modern equivalent for the word I translated as “gaol”, which is a Briticism and an anachronism. “Under guard” would probably be the best, simply because “jail” is just too misleading. “Into the dungeon” might capture the sense. And this is an extreme course of action considering the paltriness of the debt.  

30 Ille autem noluit, sed abiit et misit eum in carcerem, donec redderet debitum.

31 ἰδόντες οὖν οἱ σύνδουλοι αὐτοῦ τὰ γενόμενα ἐλυπήθησαν σφόδρα, καὶ ἐλθόντες διεσάφησαν τῷ κυρίῳ ἑαυτῶν πάντα τὰ γενόμενα.

“Seeing these events, the (other) fellow slaves were exceedingly sorry, and coming they told their lord all the events.

31 Videntes autem conservi eius, quae fiebant, contristati sunt valde et venerunt et narraverunt domino suo omnia, quae facta erant.

32 τότε προσκαλεσάμενος αὐτὸν ὁ κύριος αὐτοῦ λέγει αὐτῷ, Δοῦλε πονηρέ, πᾶσαν τὴν ὀφειλὴν ἐκείνην ἀφῆκά σοι, ἐπεὶ παρεκάλεσάς με:

33 οὐκ ἔδει καὶ σὲ ἐλεῆσαι τὸν σύνδουλόν σου, ὡς κἀγὼ σὲ ἠλέησα;

34 καὶ ὀργισθεὶς ὁ κύριος αὐτοῦ παρέδωκεν αὐτὸν τοῖς βασανισταῖς ἕως οὗ ἀποδῷ πᾶν τὸ ὀφειλόμενον.

35 Οὕτως καὶ ὁ πατήρ μου ὁ οὐράνιος ποιήσει ὑμῖν ἐὰν μὴ ἀφῆτε ἕκαστος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν καρδιῶν ὑμῶν.

“Then calling him his lord said to him, ‘Wicked slave, all this debt I removed from you when you beseeched me. (33) It was necessary for you be compassionate to your fellow slave, as I compassioned you’. (34) And the lord having waxed wroth, gave him to the torturers until he should pay the entire debt. (35) Thus my father heavenly will do for you unless you don’t take away each to your brother (dative of possession: of your brother’s) from your heart.”  

The irony here is too plain to require any comment. What about the theology? If you think about this the right way, this could be a proof text for Purgatory: the sinner is held until the debt is paid. That’s pretty much the definition of Purgatory. Of course, no one believes in that any more except the Roman Rite, but tell me I’m wrong. Against the Purgatory reading, one could argue that the slave will never pay off the debt because he’s in the dungeon; how can he work to make the money back to repay the debt? In which case, we’re talking about eternal damnation rather than Purgatory.

 The point is, God will forgive us anything, no matter how enormous, but we have the obligation to do the same for our fellows. That is how this ties into the 77 iterations of forgiveness to our brother. And this certainly doesn’t seem to sit well with sola fides, but that’s an entirely different conversation. Depending on your definitions, the faith creates the works (by their fruits…). Of course, that’s not the only way to understand sola fides, but this isn’t the time nor place for that debate. Offhand, I don’t know how this fits with Jewish morality; I suspect it does, because social consciousness is a big part of Jewish belief, and there is a lot of it in the HS. So this doesn’t have to be seen as revolutionary.

Then there is the question of provenance. This was not in Mark, and it’s not in Luke, so we can’t ascribe it to the hypothetical Q. My sense is that Matthew composed this. It’s not the most eloquent story; it certainly does not have the elegance of Luke’s solo material. It feels a little forced. I’m not sure that lyrical storytelling is a strong point for Matthew, so I’m going to come down on the side that Matthew did compose this. Most of the Matthew-solo material has this unpolished feel, or this bit about not quite being literary quality. Could it trace to Jesus? It could. The content of the story contains no internal inconsistencies or anachronistic attitudes. The only real problem is that most of these kinds of stories aren’t found in Mark, and Luke will have a whole passel more of these: think Divus and Lazarus, for example, or Zacchaeus.  Think back to the stories in Mark; the Gerasene demonaic; the bleeding woman; Jairus and his daughter; there is nothing even remotely like this. The parables that Mark gives to Jesus are short: the sower, the mustard seed; the possible exception being the parable of the vineyard owner who sends his son against the wicked tenants, only to have the tenants kill him. If we stop to consider the arc from Mark through Matthew into Luke, what we have is a steady increase in the sheer number, the length, and the complexity of the parables told by Jesus. In Mark, we get the Sower and the Wicked Tenants; in Matthew we get those, plus this one and the Lost Sheep; in Luke, we get the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, and the Good Shepherd.

As we progress through the Synoptic Gospels, the parables have a different feel, different symbolism. These may be very subjective observations, but that doesn’t mean they lack validity. But think about that observations: more parables in the latest of the Synoptics; and not only more, but perhaps the most memorable, the “titles” of which are aphorisms in English language and culture. We can talk about a prodigal son and expect that the allusion will be understood. If these parables actually trace to Jesus, where were they for the 70 years between Jesus’ execution and the point Luke wrote? The answer, of course, is that they hadn’t been written until Luke came along. This is a classic example of how legends grow over time.

In the meantime, a comparison of the content, the style, and the message of the parables told by Mark and then by Matthew would, I think, be, fruitful. 

32 Tunc vocavit illum dominus suus et ait illi: “Serve nequam, omne debitum illud dimisi tibi, quoniam rogasti me;

33 non oportuit et te misereri conservi tui, sicut et ego tui misertus sum?”.

34 Et iratus dominus eius tradidit eum tortoribus, quoadusque redderet universum debitum.

35 Sic et Pater meus caelestis faciet vobis, si non remiseritis unusquisque fratri suo de cordibus vestris ”.


Summary Matthew Chapter 17

All in all, Chapter 17 was largely a recapitulation of themes and stories that were in Mark. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are enough additions and subtractions that we can get some valuable insight into when and where and how Matthew’s purpose and perspective is different from that of Mark. Once we have determined that, we can ask why these changes occurred. What changed?

The first part of the chapter contains the Transfiguration story. Overall, Matthew’s story is slightly shorter; interestingly, Luke’s story is the longest, and significantly so. The difference between Mark and Matthew comes to a few details that we touched on. Mark describes the way Jesus’ garments glowed in human terms; they were impossible to attain, but the reference is to the fulling of the cloth to make it white. In Matthew, Jesus’ garments are “white as light” and Jesus’ face shone like the sun. The terms of description are no longer human; Jesus has transcended humanity and entered into the divine. It occurs to me now I that I may have failed to catch the possible significance of light during the commentary; the concept of light was very important for dualistic religions. It represented the principle of Good. And Platonic philosophyis implicitly dualistic, with a distinction between good spirit–light–and bad flesh–dark. So is Matthew once again drawing on his pagan background and implying Jesus’ connection to the principle of Good by saying that Jesus’ garments were white as light?

Or was he making a really obvious simile?

In this instance, it’s most likely the latter. Or is it?

Because at the climax of the Transfiguration, Jesus is covered by a cloud in Mark; here he is covered by a shining cloud. So we again have the reference to light. Because in the passage where Jesus’ clothes are white as light, his face shone like the sun. So, pagan references?

This might be more probable if there weren’t the passage in Exodus in which Moses’ face shone after his communication with YHWH. So is this a reference to Moses?

Or, once again, is Matthew simply using a fairly obvious simile? I still suspect none of this really refers back to Matthew’s pagan background. All of this is to imply that Matthew would tend to draw on images and iconography that was familiar to him, that he was used to, that was at his fingertips when he was sitting and writing, not that he was dropping covert clues about being a pagan. It’s an American calling a traitor a “Benedict Arnold” where a European might use the term “Quisling”. Matthew, I believe, does leave unconscious clues pointing to his pagan background throughout the text. I’m just not sure that this is one of those places.

So the implication of the differences between Mark and Matthew in the Transfiguration story is fairly straightforward. Matthew changed some of the details mainly to make the divinity of Jesus more apparent. The differences are not large, but they are, I believe, telling. They tell us that Matthew’s attitude about Jesus was more exalted than that of Mark. There is less ambiguity about Jesus’ identity.

There are some additional changes in detail in the telling of the immediate aftermath of the Transfiguration. The only one of consequence comes during the discussion of Elijah. In both stories, everyone understands that Elijah has to come before the Messiah. In Matthew’s version, the disciples understand that, this time around, John had played the role of Elijah. Sufficient emphasis was not given to this during the commentary. Yes, we discussed that the implication was that the disciples were not simply the dullards that Mark had described. Instead, they are more perceptive, they understand implications, they get it to a degree they hadn’t in Mark. And these are valid points. Matthew’s disciples, overall, are more keen in their understanding than the group in Mark. But there is another element to the Elijah = John identity. What’s really important is how this reinforces what I’ve been saying about the way the role of the Baptist grew over time. That is, far from being embarrassed by the connexion, the later followers played it up, made John’s role more prominent, and increased the importance of John’s role. This is exactly the opposite of what should have happened had the followers of Jesus truly been embarrassed by the way John seemed to be Jesus’ mentor.

Both Mark and Matthew introduced John with the quote from Isaiah about preparing the way of the Lord. Both Mark and Matthew cite Malich 4:5, which tells us Elijah must come before the day of the Lord to set things right. But only Matthew equates Elijah with the Baptist. This equation makes John more prominent than he was in Mark. We have noted how Josephus devotes more time to the story of John than to the story of Jesus, indicating that Josephus thought that John was more important, or that John’s story was more interesting and compelling. Either one is entirely flattering to Jesus and his followers, which in turn may indicate why they were interested in appealing to John’s followers. And so this equation by Matthew actually raises John’s significance; he has attained the status of Elijah, one of the two figures to appear in the Transfiguration. And by bolstering John, the equation bolstered Jesus as well. True to form, Matthew raises both Jesus and John, but the clever aspect of Matthew’s treatment is that, while elevating John, he simultaneously makes John decidedly subservient to Jesus.

At this point we probably should ask why this part of the story was omitted by Mark. We have two choices: that Mark didn’t think of this, or that the connexion had not yet been made, or that Mark knew of/thought of the connexion and deliberately suppressed it. If it’s the first, this is another fantastic example of the growth of legend, as in the Arthur legend. The king himself is elevated (first, by being named a king rather than a war-leader), and those around him are elevated and often flat-out invented. If Mark chose to suppress, we then have to ask why? Was it because he wanted the disciples to be thought of as dullards? (Why he would go so far to leave that impress is a separate question…) My first impulse is to believe the first possibility: that the equation of John and Elijah had not been made. That is the easy way out, because it has no real ramifications. But given the way Matthew puts this, presents this, the context in which he puts it, I’m tempted to understand this in terms of Mark deliberately excising the disciples making the connexion. But that would assume that Matthew had access to a different source in which the disciples made the connexion. So, the likelihood is that either Matthew, or someone after Mark at least, was the one to make the equation explicit. IOW, this is a case of the growing legend.

There are other possible explanations, of course. But the either/or here takes it down to minimal essentials, and sort of gets at the roots, if not all the possible branches.

Next comes the story of the boy with a demon. The differences with Mark are clear and easily interpreted. Basically, this is one story in which Mark discusses what I call magical practices. Primarily, in Mark this concerns the question of the disciples on why they could not drive out the demon. Mark attributes it to lack of knowledge: this kind can only be exorcised by prayer. For Matthew, it’s a lack of faith. All that is required is faith the size of a mustard seed and one can move mountains. Of course, the implication is that the disciples lack even this much faith. This is akin to Peter’s attempt to walk on water; in both cases, the disciples and Peter can do what they try if they only believe they can because of the wonders of God. Here, I think, we can clearly see the development of the story of Jesus. In Mark, he’s a wonder-worker, with an arsenal of knowledge about how to handle situations and effect cures or exorcisms; in Matthew, it’s about Jesus’ connexion to the limitless power of God, enough to move mountains if we only believe. This is an enormous step on the journey from wonder-worker to Second Person of the Trinity.

Finally, the last story is that of the fish and the Temple tax. As noted, it’s unique to Matthew. The two key elements, IMO, to the story are the reaffirmation of the connexion to Judaism, and the wondrous prediction of catching a fish with a coin in its mouth to pay the tax. The connexion to Judaism is represented by the payment of the tax; in Luke, this story will become “render unto Caesar”. As such, this story links to the question of Matthew’s religious provenance. Matthew has traditionally been considered the most “Jewish” of the evangelists, the one that has the keenest understanding of the workings of Judaism as practiced in the First Century. In my mind, I used to characterize the four of them as Mark the Journalist, Luke the Novelist, John the Theologian, and Matthew the Rabbi. This was based on what I had read about the evangelists from secondary sources. Overall, so far I have not come across much that would disabuse me of my interpretations of Mark and Matthew; I’ll judge Luke and John when I get there.

As such, my contention that Matthew wasn’t a Jew, but a pagan, is a fairly radical departure from standard academic orthodoxy. I won’t claim to be the first one in 2,000 years to make the claim, but it’s not something I’ve ever seen in my (admittedly limited) reading of the academic sources. In fact, I have not come across anything to make me suspect that such a contention about Matthew exists. Even when unstated, the existence of a given argument or position will leave a gravitational field that can be felt, even if the cause of the field is invisible. Matthew’s Jewish origin is so taken for granted that no one bothers to mention it much of the time; this, in turn, implies the non-existence of a gravitational field left by the argument that he wasn’t. The logic of arguments has to run both backwards and forwards; if it only goes in one direction, it’s not sound logic. It’s the case of Mark suppressing the equation of John and Elijah; that hypothesis really only worked in one direction, so it seemed safe to discount it.

In the very near future I need to go back over my commentary to pick out all of the clues that I’ve found that point to Matthew’s pagan background. So far, this is a working hypothesis. The various premises need to be put together to see if, indeed, they constitute an argument. At this point, I’m not certain they do, but time will tell whether I need to recant. If it becomes necessary, so be it. At this point, suffice it to say that I’ve seen nothing that makes me seriously doubt his pagan background. Even this story, where Matthew attempts to reaffirm the ties to Judaism do not provide much evidence contrary to my thesis. I’ve mentioned numerous times that people in the ancient world were impressed not by novelty, but by an ancient pedigree. As such, Matthew’s reaching back into the history of Jewish practice to re-establish, or reaffirm that connexion makes a lot of sense whether Matthew was a Jew or was a pagan. Recall the teachings of Paul, reiterated more wanly in Mark, that some Jewish practices need not be followed; the dietary laws are the best example. Given the existence of these teachings in the time preceding Matthew, it seems safe to infer that the followers of Jesus had drifted noticeably from their Jewish roots. And if a lot of new converts were pagans rather than Jews, this drift would have been more pronounced. Matthew here, it seems, attempts to counteract that drift, whether as a Jew concerned that the Jesus followers were becoming too far separated from their roots, or as a pagan who wanted the ties to the ancient traditions.

When trying to make a decision about which is more likely to have been Matthew’s motivation, it may help to stop and consider where Matthew falls in the timeline of developing Christianity. He wrote, probably, in the mid-80s, fully fifty years after Jesus’ death, thirty years after Paul, maybe fifteen years after the destruction of Jerusalem, and maybe a dozen years after Mark. From what we gather from Paul’s eyewitness account, the center of the new movement in the 50s was Jerusalem, where James, brother of Jesus was regarded as the central and key figure of the movement. If Josephus is to be believed, and there’s no good reason to doubt him, James died in the early 60s. Then, less than a decade later, Jerusalem was destroyed. It seems very likely that the combination of these two factors seriously undermined the position of Jerusalem as the focal point of the movement. Later tradition implies that it was somewhere in this period that the focus began to shift to Rome. Of course, we need to bear in mind that there were also significant centers also came into being in places like Alexandria and Antioch and, eventually, Jerusalem again. But by the early Second Century, you have a tradition of the bishops of Rome aspiring to a role of primacy.

All of this is by way of thinking about the composition of the followers of Jesus. With Jerusalem removed, most of the focus on converts probably started to shift away from Jews. Think about it: we have, essentially, a diaspora situation. We also have a number of communities founded by Paul in pagan cities like Galatia, Thessalonika, Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome–although he personally did not found that assembly, and may never have visited it. These are the reasons I believe that, by the time Matthew wrote, the tipping point had already been passed, when the Jesus movement was becoming more pagan than Jewish. To be honest, I’m not sure what the orthodox position on this is; my sense is that most biblical scholars sort of assume that the movement was more Jewish than pagan until sometime into the Second Century, just as it’s assumed that the evangelist who wrote the gospel of John was still Jewish. I highly doubt both of these ideas. Of the four evangelists, I would suspect that the only one who was raised as a Jew was Mark.

The point of this digression is that Matthew comes along after the tipping point has been passed. Now we can ask if this tells us anything about the likelihood of Matthew being a Jew or a pagan. Later tradition is, in my opinion, just about worthless. The leaders of the movement had no interest in what we would consider historical accuracy. A “tradition”, at root, is just a story that tells listeners what the one telling the story wants them to know. The bishops of Rome, to some greater or lesser degree, were able to usurp the position of primacy, but it took centuries for this to happen. Into the time of Charlemagne, the Patriarch of Constantinople had a legitimate claim to be the true leader of the Catholic Church, to being superior in position to the bishop of Rome.

So the answer, I think, is that none of this really provides any evidence to increase the likelihood of Matthew being a Jew or a pagan. When I launched into it, my preconceived notion was that it weighed in favor of his being a pagan, but I see that’s not the case. My thought was that a pagan would have more incentive to go back to the Jewish roots as a way of authenticating the origins of Jesus after a period in which the Jewish roots were being trampled under by the weight of pagan converts. One could argue that this makes it more likely that Matthew was, indeed, Jewish, and so was afraid to see that heritage lost. But this is the same author (presumably) who introduced a number of pagan motifs, so Matthew may have been conscious of balancing out the two traditions. In this way he set the tone, and the precedent for much of what was to follow during the Patristic Age.





Matthew Chapter 17:21-27

Here we have another of those “short” sections. Hopefully, this will actually be fairly short. It’s the conclusion of Chapter 17.

21 Συστρεφομένων

22 δὲ αὐτῶν ἐν τῇ Γαλιλαίᾳ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Μέλλει ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου παραδίδοσθαι εἰς χεῖρας ἀνθρώπων,

23 καὶ ἀποκτενοῦσιν αὐτόν, καὶ τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ ἐγερθήσεται. καὶ ἐλυπήθησαν σφόδρα.

They having returned (22) to Galilee, Jesus said to them, “It is destined that the son of man will be handed over to the hands of men, (23) and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised”. And they were made to be sorrowing exceedingly.

Just to start, in a lot of versions Verse 21 is blank. Here it is shown with a single word. This is a matter for textual criticism; as such, it’s not really something I can discuss. Textual criticism and reconstruction is an arena for specialists; as such, it’s beyond my poor understanding.

Second, let’s consider the purported return to Galilee. Is this accurate? True historically? Is it even meaningful? We have no way of verifying whether this represents an historical fact. Given that it leads to a prophecy that was likely after the fact, we should immediately be put on guard. But either way, that it’s unverfiable means we shouldn’t put much stock in it, and it especially means we should probably not use this as the basis for any further inferences. In the final analysis, it’s a minor point, except to serve as a reminder not to take throwaway details like this too seriously.

That brings us to the actual content. We just came across a similar pronouncement to this effect in the last chapter. And that is what should interest us here. We’ve discussed how improbable it is that Jesus ever said these words; the question is why Matthew repeats it so soon after the previous prophecy. After all, we’re only just a bit past half-way, so there is time to space these out a little more. Is that the point? By repeating the prophecies in close proximity in the text, is Matthew attempting to drive the point home more effectively? Say it once, maybe it sticks. Say it twice, and it probably will. Or does this have more to do with the way Matthew was editing Mark’s material? That seems just as likely. Whichever, it’s not something that carries a lot of weight, but I think it should make us a little more suspicious of claims that Matthew’s editing was “masterful”.

(21) 22 Conversantibus autem eis in Galilaea, dixit illis Iesus: “ Filius hominis tradendus est in manus hominum,

23 et occident eum, et tertio die resurget ”. Et contristati sunt vehementer.

24 Ἐλθόντων δὲ αὐτῶν εἰς Καφαρναοὺμ προσῆλθον οἱ τὰ δίδραχμα λαμβάνοντες τῷ Πέτρῳ καὶ εἶπαν, Ὁ διδάσκαλος ὑμῶν οὐ τελεῖ [τὰ] δίδραχμα;

25 λέγει, Ναί. καὶ ἐλθόντα εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν προέφθασεν αὐτὸν ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγων, Τί σοι δοκεῖ, Σίμων; οἱ βασιλεῖς τῆς γῆς ἀπὸ τίνων λαμβάνουσιν τέλη ἢ κῆνσον; ἀπὸ τῶν υἱῶν αὐτῶν ἢ ἀπὸ τῶν ἀλλοτρίων;

They having come to Caphernaum, they came those receiving the didrachma (two-drachma piece) to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the two drachmas?”  (25) He said, “Yes”. And having come to his house Jesus anticipated him, saying, “What does it seem to you, Simon? Do the kings of the earth from someone receive the duty or the tribute? From the sons of them or from strangers?” 

This second verse here is sort of tricky grammatically. The phrase <<ἀπὸ τίνων>> would most often mean “from someone” as I have translated it here. However, in reading the last question, it becomes clear that it’s meant to be “from whom”, which is how it’s generally rendered. Now, my discomfort with this is due in no small amount to the lack of nuanced understanding that I often bring to translation. I’m simply not all that comfortable with the language, especially with regard to NT Greek, that sometimes the subtleties escape me. I fully concede that such might be the case here. Regardless, this is not a standard Classical usage. In fact the unabridged Liddell & Scott, which focuses primarily on Classical usage, does not really register “from whom” as a viable usage. The abridged L&S, however, does recognize this as a translation. The shorter L&S, unlike the bigger version, does tend to focus more on Christian usages, especially NT usages. So once again, we are confronted with a passage in which the Greek has strayed somewhat from the way pagan authors used the words. This is not exactly a consensus translation, but we are in the antechambers of such a rendering. Honestly, the Classical usage here does not entirely make sense, but the NT usage does. So maybe it’s time to swallow my misgivings and proceed.

The content has a couple of interesting points. Once again, Jesus has a house. This time, I think, there is no real disputing this. When Mark mentioned Jesus’ house, there was often a certain ambiguity in the reference; it seemed like it was Jesus’ house, but it was never stated flatly the way it is here. So what does this mean? That Matthew had a source unavailable to Mark, testifying that Jesus, indeed, owned a house? It’s possible, but unlikely. The probability is considerably higher that Matthew read what Mark said and took it as given, and so states it as given. Jesus had a house, point of fact. Now this is a great way to see how the legend grows. In the first telling, there is a bit of uncertainty; in the second, it’s taken as proven. It happened here about a small thing with the house; it happened even more so with Jesus’ identity. In Mark, Jesus as the Christ was implied, but maybe not definite; in Matthew, it’s taken as a given.

And the bit about the didrachma, I suspect, will come to a climax in the next couple of verses. 

24 Et cum venissent Capharnaum, accesserunt, qui didrachma accipiebant, ad Petrum et dixerunt: “ Magister vester non solvit didrachma? ”.

25 Ait: “Etiam”. Et cum intrasset domum, praevenit eum Iesus dicens: “Quid tibi videtur, Simon? Reges terrae a quibus accipiunt tributum vel censum? A filiis suis an ab alienis?”.

26 εἰπόντος δέ, Ἀπὸ τῶν ἀλλοτρίων, ἔφη αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Ἄρα γε ἐλεύθεροί εἰσιν οἱ υἱοί.

27 ἵνα δὲ μὴ σκανδαλίσωμεν αὐτούς, πορευθεὶς εἰς θάλασσαν βάλε ἄγκιστρον καὶ τὸν ἀναβάντα πρῶτον ἰχθὺν ἆρον, καὶ ἀνοίξας τὸ στόμα αὐτοῦ εὑρήσεις στατῆρα: ἐκεῖνον λαβὼν δὸς αὐτοῖς ἀντὶ ἐμοῦ καὶ σοῦ.

But responding, “From strangers.” Jesus said to him, “In this way the sons are free. (27) In order that we do not stumble on them, go to the sea throw the net and hauling in the first catch of fish, and opening you will find in its mouth a stater. Taking this give to them for me and you.” 

OK, this is just kind of silly. It sounds like a fairy tale, and perhaps that is why it only occurs in Matthew. Luke wanted nothing to do with it. But it demonstrates Jesus’ divinity. Herodotus tells a similar story about a king who throws a ring into the sea because it’s the most precious thing he owns. By doing this, he is trying to avert the fate that awaits him because he is too powerful. But, a peasant catches a splendid fish and presents it to the king. Well, the ring is in the fish’s stomach, so the ring came back to the king and whatever the fate he was trying to avoid struck him anyway. The hand of god/God will not be turned.

And I believe this was the temple tax, rather than a Roman tax. That is significant because this isn’t “render unto Caesar”, but an affirmation of the Jewishness of Jesus. Recall that Mark seemed to distance himself from the Jews; but a generation later, when the scars of the Jewish Revolt had healed somewhat, Matthew wished to attach himself and the movement more firmly to the ancient heritage of the Jews, so here we have Matthew doing exactly that. In a way, it’s similar to the way that the Baptist was c0-opted by Jesus’ followers, the better to show potential converts that theirs was not a novelty, or novel, but something stretching back for centuries, just as Homer did. Now, does Matthew’s  attempt to tie Jesus and his followers more firmly to the Jewish heritage make it more or less likely that Matthew was a pagan, rather than a Jew? Or does it change the likelihood at all? My sense is that this story provides another clue that Matthew was a pagan. Why? Because the story is very deliberately placed. It’s not in Mark, it’s not in Luke. It’s unique to Matthew. So why add this? To confirm Jesus’ attachment to Judaism. Why is that important? To preserve the lengthy pedigree so important to the ancients. Were he born into the Jewish tradition, would Matthew have felt such a need to affirm that Jesus was, indeed, a Jew? I don’t think so. There is almost the sense here that Matthew is trying to convince himself as well as his readers of the great age of the tradition. By going out of his way to tell a story like this, I think that Matthew is displaying a level of need, a need to grab onto the antiquity provided by Judaism.

Writing this, it’s immediately apparent that this whole contention is almost a complete conjecture. It is not at all difficult to see this in an opposite light, or indeed as simply irrelevant to the question of Matthew’s background. But I think the small little clues, like this one, are all weighing on the side of Matthew having a pagan background. As always, feel free to disagree, but be prepared to explain why you do. The tradition that Matthew was a Jew is pretty much useless as historical evidence. The early fathers had a very powerful motivation to present Matthew as a Jew, so whatever they said fifty or a hundred years later is pure hearsay, and is more likely than not to be wishful thinking. Again, when I see how political figures in my lifetime have morphed into something that they simply were not, I realize just how unreliable the tradition of a generation later actually is. We live in an age when documentary evidence is overabundant, and yet we still find the common conceptions of what happened a generation ago to be wildly inaccurate. How much worse in the First Century, when there was so very little evidence? So I have almost no faith in anything the traditions of the early church tell us. Eusebios is pretty much unreliable.

26 Cum autem ille dixisset: “ Ab alienis ”, dixit illi Iesus: “ Ergo liberi sunt filii.

27 Ut autem non scandalizemus eos, vade ad mare et mitte hamum; et eum piscem, qui primus ascenderit, tolle; et, aperto ore, eius invenies staterem. Illum sumens, da eis pro me et te ”.

Matthew Chapter 17:10-20

This section is the follow-up, or conclusion of the Transfiguration story. It may be fruitful to read this while keeping in mind the idea that this may have constituted the beginning of the story that held Jesus to be the Christ. 

10 καὶ ἐπηρώτησαν αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ λέγοντες, Τί οὖν οἱ γραμματεῖς λέγουσιν ὅτι Ἠλίαν δεῖ ἐλθεῖν πρῶτον;

And they asked him the disciples saying, “So what do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”

Apparently, the bit about Elijah coming first, before the Messiah, refers to a prophecy of Malachi. Apparently the idea is that Elijah would return and usher the way for the Messiah. I do recall reading about this when we did this passage in Mark. Malachi is a later, lesser prophet. I’ve noted several times that there have been a number of citations of these later prophets. A moment’s reflection should tell us that this is not surprising. These later prophets were written in the last centuries BCE; as such, they are close to the time of Jesus, and they both speak to a similar secular environment of Judea being subjugated to a pagan foreign power. So the “way out” of this would have had appeal to those living under the Seleucids as well as those living under the Romans. 

10 Et interrogaverunt eum discipuli dicentes: “ Quid ergo scribae dicunt quod Eliam oporteat primum venire? ”.

11 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Ἠλίας μὲν ἔρχεται καὶ ἀποκαταστήσει πάντα:

12 λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν ὅτι Ἠλίας ἤδη ἦλθεν, καὶ οὐκ ἐπέγνωσαν αὐτὸν ἀλλὰ ἐποίησαν ἐν αὐτῷ ὅσα ἠθέλησαν: οὕτως καὶ ὁυἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου μέλλει πάσχειν ὑπ’ αὐτῶν.

He, answering, said “Elijah is to come and restore everything. (12) But I say to you that Elijah has come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him as they wished. In this way the son of man is destined to suffer from all”. 

The thought world of First Century Judaism was waiting for Elijah to come as the herald of the Messiah. Jesus is telling them that this has already happened. 

11 At ille respondens ait: “ Elias quidem venturus est et restituet omnia.

12 Dico autem vobis quia Elias iam venit, et non cognoverunt eum, sed fecerunt in eo, quaecumque voluerunt; sic et Filius hominis passurus est ab eis ”.

13 τότε συνῆκαν οἱ μαθηταὶ ὅτι περὶ Ἰωάννου τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς.

Then the disciples understood that about John the Dunker he spoke to them.

The first thing to note is the distinction between Mark and Matthew here. Mark does not include this line about the disciples understanding. The disciples have become a lot more perceptive in the interim between the two gospels. We are justified to ask why this would happen. It would seem to be part of the process of creating legend out of history. In Mark, the disciples are mere fallible–so very fallible–mortals. Here, they are starting to ascend the higher reaches, thereby becoming larger than life.

This connexion is very interesting. Is this why the relationship to John grew over time? Now, the idea of John-as-herald was already in Mark, but now it’s being expanded as he is equated with none other than Elijah. And not only did the association with John grow, the followers of Jesus were finding a way to co-opt and further domesticate him, by insisting on his role of Jesus’ herald. The interesting thing here is that someone came across the Malachi quote and understood that it could be pressed into service in this way, figuratively, in which the Baptist could stand in for Elijah no less. Which makes one recall the road to Emmaus on Easter, when the traveler laid out to the disciples (unnamed; usually a bad sign for historical authenticity) all the passages of the HS that referred to Jesus as the Messiah. This passage even puts Elijah into a subservient position as one who prepares the way.

Then we also have Jesus once again stressing that he will be ill-used by…whom? The same people who did whatever they wished to Elijah. Except Elijah was not killed by the crowd, so the part about “doing what they want” actually refers to John. Perhaps this is how the disciples knew?

13 Tunc intellexerunt discipuli quia de Ioanne Baptista dixisset eis.

14 Καὶ ἐλθόντων πρὸς τὸν ὄχλον προσῆλθεν αὐτῷ ἄνθρωπος γονυπετῶν αὐτὸν

15 καὶ λέγων, Κύριε, ἐλέησόν μου τὸν υἱόν, ὅτι σεληνιάζεται καὶ κακῶς πάσχει: πολλάκις γὰρ πίπτει εἰς τὸ πῦρ καὶ πολλάκις εἰς τὸ ὕδωρ.

And coming toward the crowd a man came to him and  knelt (before) him, (15) and saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son, that is moon-struck and suffers badly. For often he falls into the fire and often into the water.”

First, what I translated as “moon-struck” uses the root for “moon”. Of course, the word for “moon” in Latin is “luna”, which has become our “lunatic”. The idea carried through from Greek, into Latin, and ended up in English (and perhaps other languages?). Second, the man says “Lord have mercy,” which transliterates as “kyrie eleison”, which of course is the prayer “Kyrie” which is said in Catholic and Episcopalian masses. It’s the only part of the Latin mass that was in Greek, and it persists, if in English form in Episcopalian mass.

14 Et cum venissent ad turbam, accessit ad eum homo genibus provolutus ante eum

15 et dicens: “ Domine, miserere filii mei, quia lunaticus est et male patitur; nam saepe cadit in ignem et crebro in aquam.

16 καὶ προσήνεγκα αὐτὸν τοῖς μαθηταῖς σου, καὶ οὐκ ἠδυνήθησαν αὐτὸν θεραπεῦσαι.

17 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν, “ω γενεὰ ἄπιστος καὶ διεστραμμένη, ἕως πότε μεθ’ ὑμῶν ἔσομαι; ἕως πότε ἀνέξομαι ὑμῶν; φέρετέ μοι αὐτὸν ὧδε.

And I brought him (the lad) towards his disciples and they were not able to heal him. (17) Responding, Jesus said, “O faithless and having been perverted generation, until when with you will I be? Until when do I suffer you? Bring him to me.”

This is very interesting. Who is Jesus calling faithless and perverted? “This generation”, but on first reading it seems like this is directed at the disciples. After all, they were unable to heal the boy. Now, it’s also possible that the faithlessness of those around the disciples and the boy was what prevented them healing the boy. This is what happened in Mark 6 when Jesus was unable to perform any significant miracles due to the lack of faith of those in his home town. In all probability, that is how we should understand this passage. But the placement of this here is interesting for a number of reasons. 

The problem is that Mark did not include this allusion to a faithless generation in his version of this story. Yes, Mark has Jesus bewailing this faithless and perverted generation several times, but he doesn’t do it here. Rather, Mark has Jesus explaining how to handle this sort of demon, telling the disciples that they can only be exorcised through prayer. This is one of a half-dozen times that Mark talks about, or describes the magical practices of Jesus, the things he does to effect the miracles he performs. One time it was making mud with his saliva; here it was categorizing the demonic species and providing a training session on how to cure “this type”. That being the case, we have to ask why Matthew did include it.

Of course, we have no way of knowing what Matthew’s motivation was. So we have to speculate. As I see it, the most likely explanation is that Matthew was generally going out of his way to downplay the wonder-worker aspect of Jesus. He didn’t want to eliminate the miracles the way Thomas Jefferson did, but he didn’t want them to play quite so prominent a role. At least, that seems a reasonable inference based on the overall presentation. It can be argued and counter-argued, of course, but the position is eminently viable. But the one thing that Matthew consistently does is eliminate all of the descriptions of magical practice that Mark included. In reading the latter, I found these descriptions fascinating, and there are more of them than one realizes until they are aggregated. This story was a great example. So Matthew eliminates this aspect of the story, resorting instead to the “faithless generation” theme that was also prominent in Mark.

Given this, it’s rather pointless, I believe, to ask whether this jibe was directed at the disciples, at the surrounding crowd, or the generation in general. In Matthew’s usage of the theme, it wasn’t actually directed at anyone in particular. It was more of a misdirection, an attempt to change the subject than an expression of genuine angst.  

Given this second aspect, and assuming we accept it, Matthew’s treatment of this story provides are really sharp insight into the creation of the message of Jesus. Matthew could not just excise the miracles, the wonders, themselves, but he could alter the way they were presented. Doing this, we get a keen view of how Jesus message was subtly re-worked, re-arranged, changed over time just as the attitudes towards Jesus evolved as the writing of the NT progressed. If you read the NT as a developing document, rather than something that flashed into existence simultaneously, with each piece independent of, but also contingent upon every other piece, this development of ideas becomes remarkably clear. Matthew was not writing with every piece  of Paul in mind, let alone John. They were each presenting their own message and not trying to reinforce and consciously complement the others. In fact, subsequent writers were trying to correct previous ones in some situations. This is one of them.

16 Et obtuli eum discipulis tuis, et non potuerunt curare eum ”.

17 Respondens autem Iesus ait: “ O generatio incredula et perversa, quousque ero vobiscum? Usquequo patiar vos? Afferte huc illum ad me ”.

18 καὶ ἐπετίμησεν αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, καὶ ἐξῆλθεν ἀπ’ αὐτοῦ τὸ δαιμόνιον: καὶ ἐθεραπεύθη ὁ παῖς ἀπὸ τῆς ὥρας ἐκείνης.

19 Τότε προσελθόντες οἱ μαθηταὶ τῷ Ἰησοῦ κατ’ ἰδίαν εἶπον, Διὰ τί ἡμεῖς οὐκ ἠδυνήθημεν ἐκβαλεῖν αὐτό;

20 ὁ δὲ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Διὰ τὴν ὀλιγοπιστίαν ὑμῶν: ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐὰν ἔχητε πίστιν ὡς κόκκον σινάπεως, ἐρεῖτε τῷ ὄρει τούτῳ, Μετάβα ἔνθεν ἐκεῖ, καὶ μεταβήσεται: καὶ οὐδὲν ἀδυνατήσει ὑμῖν.

And Jesus rebuked it, and it came out of him the demon. And the boy was healed from that hour. (19) Them the disciples coming to Jesus in private said, “On account of what were we not able to cast him out” (20) And Jesus said to them, “On account of the little faith of yours. Amen I say to you, if you may have the faith as a mustard seed, you will say to that mountain, ‘Come here’, and it will come here. And nothing you will be unable to do.”

Well, this sort of seems to contradict what I said earlier about the “faithless generation”, but I stick to my position. It was misdirection. Lack of faith is an acceptable reason for the inability to work a wondrous cure; not knowing your demonic taxonomy is not. I stand by my position because of the invocation of the faithless generation; this is not “oh ye of little faith” as Jesus said to Peter when the latter realized he couldn’t walk on water. This is what Jesus says when the Pharisees want to see a sign from heaven. As such, it’s not entirely appropriate to ascribe this to the disciples, and particularly not in private. Matthew is still trying to change the subject from the demon itself, and to make the conversation about a general lack of faith.

So I stand by what I said in the previous comment. As always, feel free to disagree. But if you do, make sure you have reasons for doing so, that you can explain these reasons, and that these reasons form a coherent explanation.


18 Et increpavit eum Iesus, et exiit ab eo daemonium, et curatus est puer ex illa hora.

19 Tunc accesserunt discipuli ad Iesum secreto et dixerunt: “ Quare nos non potuimus eicere illum? ”.

20 Ille autem dicit illis: “ Propter modicam fidem vestram. Amen quippe dico vobis: Si habueritis fidem sicut

granum sinapis, dicetis monti huic: “Transi hinc illuc!”, et transibit, et nihil impossibile erit vobis ”.

Matthew Chapter 17:1-9

This is the story of the Transfiguration. The narrative follows that of Mark fairly closely, so I don’t think it will be necessary to add too much line-by-line commentary. But I always think these will be shorter than they actually are.

1 Καὶ μεθ’ ἡμέρας ἓξ παραλαμβάνει ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὸν Πέτρον καὶ Ἰάκωβον καὶ Ἰωάννην τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἀναφέρει αὐτοὺς εἰς ὄρος ὑψηλὸν κατ’ ἰδίαν.

And after six days Jesus took Peter and James and John his brother, and carried them up the high mountain by themselves.

This is almost verbatim from Mark.

1 Et post dies sex assumit Iesus Petrum et Iacobum et Ioannem fratrem eius et ducit illos in montem excelsum seorsum.

2 καὶ μετεμορφώθη ἔμπροσθεν αὐτῶν, καὶ ἔλαμψεν τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ ὡς ὁ ἥλιος, τὰ δὲ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο λευκὰὡς τὸ φῶς.

And he was transformed before them, and shone his face like the sun, his clothing became white as light.

This is slightly different from Mark, who does not have Jesus’ face becoming like the sun. Mark spent his description describing Jesus’ clothing as being impossibly white. This added description by Matthew would seem to be an expansion of the myth, or is it just a more graphic description? The other question worth asking is whether this is pagan imagery?  It’s probably not necessary to take it as such, but it’s worth noting that this is the only time this simile is used. Even Luke, who is often considered to be a pagan, does not use it. So here again we have something peculiar to Matthew. Of course a detail like this is not significant because just because it’s unusual

2 Et transfiguratus est ante eos; et resplenduit facies eius sicut sol, vestimenta autem eius facta sunt alba sicut lux.

3 καὶ ἰδοὺ ὤφθη αὐτοῖς Μωϋσῆς καὶ Ἠλίας συλλαλοῦντες μετ’ αὐτοῦ.

And he was seen by them speaking together with him with Moses and Elijah.

Pardon the bad English. I was trying to preserve the Greek, but there was no real way to do that, so I had to repeat the “with”. Again, Moses and Elijah, perhaps the two most important figures of the HS, taking that with some latitude. The point is it’s Elijah, and not Isaiah, whom I think a lot of Christians might expect given his prominence in NT citations and thinking.

3 Et ecce apparuit illis Moyses et Elias cum eo loquentes.

4 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Πέτρος εἶπεν τῷ Ἰησοῦ, Κύριε, καλόν ἐστιν ἡμᾶς ὧδε εἶναι: εἰ θέλεις, ποιήσω ὧδε τρεῖς σκηνάς, σοὶ μίαν καὶ Μωϋσεῖ μίαν καὶ Ἠλίᾳ μίαν.

And answering Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will make here three tents, one for you alone, one for Moses alone, and Elijah alone”.

I’ve never been sure how to take this. Is Peter just babbling? It seems like it. Now contrast this with him being the rock upon whom Jesus would build the church. The two images do not quite go together, do they? In fact, this is almost comic relief, just as his attempt to walk on the water was almost comic relief. This seems to provide further evidence that the “rock” passage of the last chapter was interpolated. Here and when he tries to walk on water, Peter is bordering on buffoonish behaviour, and yet we are told that he is the rock on which Jesus will build his church. There seems to be some inconsistency in the portrayal. Or what we’re probably seeing is a layering of the traditions. As time passed, more stories were told, and not all would have portrayed Peter in the same manner. This is the way legends grow. The stories told of Ronald Reagan now, just under two generations after he left the presidency, do not necessarily bear much resemblance to the person who actually sat in the White House. The legend has begun to conflict with itself, to the point of contradiction. 

Despite all of this, the significant thing here, I believe, is not the way he is portrayed, but that it is Peter who is speaking and not one of the others. Throughout the gospels, it is Peter with whom Jesus interacts. He is the one who got out of the boat, the rock, the one speaking here, the one who denies him, etc. And it’s always a little surprising to note how little James and John actually say or do, despite their positions of supposed prominence. What this tells me is that, as Paul corroborates, Peter was Jesus’ loyal follower, one who played a leading role in the ministry. James and John are likely later creations. Or, perhaps more accurately, they are like time travelers, individuals who played significant roles after Jesus’ death, and they have been teleported back in time to justify their leading role in the aftermath. And if James and John are retro-projections, I think it’s very safe to say that the other members of the Twelve are as well. I still suspect they were named by James, brother of the Lord, after the latter’s death. Of course, it would be interesting to speculate that the James here named was perhaps the son of Zebedee and Mary.

4 Respondens autem Petrus dixit ad Iesum: “ Domine, bonum est nos hic esse. Si vis, faciam hic tria tabernacula: tibi unum et Moysi unum et Eliae unum ”.

5 ἔτι αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος ἰδοὺ νεφέλη φωτεινὴ ἐπεσκίασεν αὐτούς, καὶ ἰδοὺ φωνὴ ἐκ τῆς νεφέλης λέγουσα, Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν ᾧ εὐδόκησα: ἀκούετε αὐτοῦ.

Upon him speaking, behold, a shining cloud obscured them, and, behold, a voice from the cloud saying, “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him”.

The details are only slightly different from Mark’s version. The “shining” cloud is new, and rather an interesting concept. Meteorologically speaking, there are times when clouds do seem to shine, usually when the sun is beside or behind them, but here the intent is purely poetic, I believe. This was not a standard-issue or garden-variety cloud, dull of hue and brightness, but a luminous cloud, one that shines. The object is to contrast this to “ordinary” clouds, to indicate the divine aspect, one that was numinous as well as luminous.

5 Adhuc eo loquente, ecce nubes lucida obumbravit eos; et ecce vox de nube dicens: “Hic est Filius meus dilectus, in quo mihi bene complacui; ipsum audite”.

6 καὶ ἀκούσαντες οἱ μαθηταὶ ἔπεσαν ἐπὶ πρόσωπον αὐτῶν καὶ ἐφοβήθησαν σφόδρα.

And hearing, the disciples fell upon their faces and they were exceedingly afraid. 

I dearly wanted to render this as “sore afraid”, and I did so at first before changing it. The KJV actually does render this as “sore afraid”, but that says more about Stuart-era English than it does the Greek. In the famous passage of Luke, the shepherds actually “feared a great fear”. It’s just that the passage of Luke has been lodged very deeply in the cultural vernacular of the English-speaking world. Hearing Linus repeat it all those years in A Charlie Brown Christmas certainly helped.

6 Et audientes discipuli ceciderunt in faciem suam et timuerunt valde.

7 καὶ προσῆλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ ἁψάμενος αὐτῶν εἶπεν,Ἐγέρθητε καὶ μὴ φοβεῖσθε.

8 ἐπάραντες δὲ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτῶν οὐδένα εἶδον εἰ μὴ αὐτὸν Ἰησοῦν μόνον.

And Jesus came forward and touched them, saying “Get up and fear not”. (8) And raising their eyes the saw no one except Jesus alone.

Normalcy returns, the aperture to the divine is closed. What had happened? Had it happened? Surely, the disciples must have thought something like that.

In the discussion of Mark, I toyed with the idea that the Transfiguration may have been the climax of the story at one time. In Mark, it comes sort of at the point where the wonder-worker tale gives way to the Christ tradition, and it seems possible that this was meant to be the turning point, where Jesus true identity is revealed. That is an attractive thesis, but on further consideration it is probably more appealing than it is substantiated. I am not at all sure the thesis can be defended. It’s pretty to think this, but it’s not a sound position. This story does, of course, reveal Jesus’ identity, but I doubt very much that it was ever meant to be a climax. Rather, it’s more like a second baptism story; this is hardly a novel idea, given the repetition of the voice from the heavens declaring Jesus as “my son”, with the tacit understanding that we are hearing the voice of God.

But once we’ve granted that it’s a second baptism, what do we make of this? From a stylistic perspective, from how the stories of the baptism and the transfiguration mirror each other, it’s very easy to see them as brackets, or bookends. It was from thinking on these terms that the idea of the transfiguration as the end of the story occurred to me. And even now, this idea still seems appealing, and I suppose it could be argued if we think in terms of a fairly primitive story. But further reflection leads to another possibility that warrants at least some consideration. Rather than beginning and end, it’s probably more appropriate to think of the transfiguration as a second beginning. Here is where the identity of Jesus is fully revealed. The baptism, with it’s heavenly voice, opens us up to an adopted Jesus; the transfiguration gives us a truly divine Jesus, whose face shines like the sun, and who converses with Moses and Elijah. As such, I would suspect that this is a later addition to the story, one that came after the baptism and the wonder-worker stories. It was designed to elevate Jesus above the role of wonder-worker, and place him more securely in the realm of the gods.

7 Et accessit Iesus et tetigit eos dixitque eis: “Surgite et nolite timere”.

8 Levantes autem oculos suos, neminem viderunt nisi solum Iesum.

9 Καὶ καταβαινόντων αὐτῶν ἐκτοῦ ὄρους ἐνετείλατο αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγων, Μηδενὶ εἴπητε τὸ ὅραμα ἕως οὗ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκ νεκρῶν ἐγερθῇ.

And they coming down from the mountain Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell no one this thing having been seen until the son of man from the dead has been raised.

Once again, this is almost verbatim from Mark, so there’s really not much new to say. This is part of the Messianic secret that Mark perpetuates. We’ve speculated on why; my position is that Mark–or an intervening source–came up with this idea to explain why Jesus was not followed more widely by Jews than he was. Were there assemblies in Galilee? We don’t know of any–to the best of my limited knowledge. Why weren’t there? Or why weren’t there more? Because Jesus kept his identity as the anointed one secret, so only a few people knew about this. But how does this square with the enormous crowds that Mark says followed Jesus? Well, they were only interested in the healing powers Jesus demonstrated. Because if you read Mark with any perspicacity, you will note that it’s the healings that draw the crowds. And there is where Mark joined the two traditions, that of the wonder-worker and that of the Christ.

This story belongs to the latter element, and could be seen as the splashy intro to the Christ tradition in Mark. By retaining Mark’s basic structure, Matthew repeats aspects of Mark–like the messianic secret–even when they don’t exactly make a lot of sense. In the context of Matthew, this secret of Jesus is not terribly appropriate, whereas it’s a key part of Mark. This is yet another indication of why it’s obvious that Mark wrote first: things like the messianic secret only make sense when the idea of Jesus as Messiah wasn’t the prevailing attitude.

9 Et descendentibus illis de monte, praecepit eis Iesus dicens: “Nemini dixeritis visionem, donec Filius hominis a mortuis resurgat”.