Category Archives: Chapter 21

Summary Matthew Chapter 21

This chapter began with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. If I hurry, perhaps I can get this post up in time for Palm Sunday which is coming up. From there we had the cleansing of the Temple, the cursing of the fig tree, and we concluded with a couple of paragraphs about the sort of people who would get into the kingdom of the heavens. Hint: (self-)righteous Jews are not at the top of the list.

The cursing of the fig tree is one of the more interesting pieces of the chapter. The story was in Mark, but this version changes things around a bit. It always struck me as curious that a) Jesus expect the tree to have figs, even though it was spring, rather than the season for figs; and b) when his unreasonable quest for figs is thwarted, he gets really annoyed and curses the tree. In this story, it withers on the spot, whereas in Mark it happened over the course of the day. One question: rather than using his power to curse the tree, why not use it to produce figs? Well, of course, because the tree is a metaphor. It’s meant to tell us what will happen to those trees that do not bear good fruit; or any fruit at all. In which case, it’s again unlikely that this story reflects any kind of real-world experience that occurred with Jesus; of course, this necessarily implies that it was made up later. But is that any more likely? Let’s think about this for a moment. The point of the story is that those not bearing good fruit don’t make it to the kingdom of God/heaven/the heavens. How soon did that message become part of the teaching? Did it start with Jesus? And we need to realise that, just because teaching of the kingdom can (probably) be traced back to Jesus, that’s not the same thing as saying that some will be excluded from it. Personally, I think it makes more sense for this message to develop after a period of time, after the acceptance of Jesus among Jews had tapered off to a trickle, and after the higher caste of society perhaps did not find the message of Jesus as appealing as other members did. So I think this is a bit of ex-post-facto rationalization of the way this all developed.

And to emphasize this, we get the next two parables that tell us that those we might expect to inherit–the A-listers, as it were–would not be the ones to inherit the kingdom after all. The two sons tells us that it won’t be the righteous, the ones who agree on the outside, but with their fingers crossed, who enter the kingdom, but the repentant. It will be those who rebelled at first, taking the wrong path, but eventually they have a change of heart. This was also the message of the Workers in the Vineyard: yes, some will be late-comers, who won’t have worked through the heat of the day, but their reward will be the same. So we have the sinners, the tax collectors, the despised, upon whom the righteous look down upon with scorn who will enter the kingdom. The followers of Jesus were, apparently, a disreputable lot in the view of many of these self-same righteous people. But, oh well, the joke is on the righteous, apparently. On one hand, the Wicked Tenants does not have to be about Jews and Gentiles. It works perfectly well on a good vs bad level. Here, however, the wicked ones do not repent, but persist in their evil ways. It’s only when the high priests realize that Jesus was speaking about them does the Jew/pagan theme creep in, I think. After all, the high priests are not outwardly wicked, so their eventual exclusion is perhaps rather startling. If the priests won’t enter, who will?

Of course, the idea of the priests not being wicked should be qualified. They have not been wicked–yet. Of course their wicked behaviour is described when the Wicked Tenants kill the son of the owner of the vineyard. The role that the priests will play in the soon-t0-come death of Jesus is perfectly anticipated in the parable. Perfectly? A little too perfectly, doesn’t it seem? So this is more evidence that this piece was composed after Jesus’ death, when the outcome had become clear, even if the perpetrators had been invented.

But this latter was composed pretty early, since it was in Mark. I would tend to suspect it arose shortly after the Passion narrative came into circulation. This ties neatly in with that, anticipating what the high priests will do. Shall we give credit to James for this? Perhaps, but not necessarily so. Remember, there was not a single Jesus tradition, and this was true already in the time of Paul, who spoke about “other gospels”. And let’s remember that Paul got all his material directly from God, via divine inspiration. How many others like him were there? Or how many who had heard Jesus preach retold the stories of Jesus, which grew in the telling, which is how all true epic poetry comes about. And the story is growing. With Luke it will hit its culmination.

But let’s go back to the fig tree for a few moments. There are several tracks, or layers to this story, and two of them interrelate quite nicely. What is this story? It’s not a parable, but it be called some sort of a cautionary tale. But first and foremost, it’s a blatant demonstration of power. Jesus killed the tree with his words. And he did it in a fit of pique. This hard kernel sometimes gets lost under the metaphors and allegories, but the demonstration of power lies at the base of this. Think about it; how many bad movies have you seen in which personified Death makes the flowers wither and die just by passing too near them? It’s a cliché. That’s more or less what Jesus does here. What sort of person performs wondrous acts like this? Well, a wonder-worker. And this is a particularly unadulterated example of a wonder. Yes, we can–indeed, we did–allegorize this. But the combination of the anger and the power is not terribly edifying for the Messiah, but it is a pretty impressive display for a wonder-worker. This is not someone you want to cross. And the thing is, because it’s not exactly a flattering depiction or description of Jesus, I believe this story is very old. It might even trace to Jesus’ lifetime. Does this mean Jesus actually killed a tree with his words? Perhaps not, but I think it does indicate that people believed he did such things. Just as he healed the lame, gave the blind their sight, and expelled demons. In other words, he worked wonders.

Which leads us to the last part of this. I’ve said numerous times that I think Matthew was actually a bit embarrassed by Jesus’ miracles. I have the sense he found them a bit theatrical, and not in a good sense of the word. So why does he repeat this story? Because it was expected that he would tell this story. He was not excising stories, but he was presenting a more well-rounded picture of Jesus, one emphasizing his divinity. So, he keeps the story; killing a tree with words is the sort of thing a divine person could do, after all. But he has to change the ending, or perhaps the moral of the story. And this new twist takes this from being a rather vulgar display of power and turns it into a lesson about faith. After all, Jesus tells those disciples who witnessed the event that they could command mountains to throw into the sea. This theme of faith as cause of miraculous events is very old. This is part of the original stratum of Jesus’ teaching; that is, I believe that it was part of what Jesus himself actually taught. So Matthew rather kills two birds (fig trees?) with one stone: he taps into the tradition of Jesus’ teaching about faith and uses it to elevate what is, at heart, a somewhat unflattering depiction of the Messiah. And I just want to stress once again just how potentially embarrassing this story is, and how detrimental to the idea of Jesus as divine. It’s the spring; fruit ripens in the fall. Of course there are no figs, and what sort of person–divine, human, or otherwise–would expect there to be ripe fruit? So Matthew needs to change the subject, and quickly. That he didn’t simply leave this on the cutting room floor indicates, I think, just how strong the tradition of Jesus the wonder-worker was, even into Matthew’s day.

The only thing left to discuss is the events of that first Palm Sunday. Matthew doesn’t necessarily add too much to it. In Mark I believe we had a good description of a procession, Jesus in the midst of an entourage that stuck with him. Here, we got a few hints of the attraction this created among the onlookers. What is odd is that when the onlookers asked who Jesus was, Matthew did not take this opportunity to tell the crowd that this was the Messiah, or at least the scion of David. Instead, he settles for calling Jesus a prophet. Why the reticence? If the point of this gospel is to tell us who Jesus is, why not tell us here, too? Later in the Temple, the children are shouting “Hosanna to the son of David”, so why not here as well? Of course, this leads to the question did this happen in any way, shape or form? I’m halfway tempted to say that it did. People did continue to talk about Jesus after he died. Therefore, it’s certainly not outrageous to say that he impressed a fair number of people while he was alive. Think of it this way: Jesus comes to Jerusalem for Passover. He stays with followers who live in Bethany. They all troop into Jerusalem, surrounding Jesus, whether he’s riding a donkey or just walking. It’s not all that far-fetched. The owner of the house may have had that donkey, too. Or that may have belonged to another follower, who had told Jesus where to find the donkey. There is a certain amount of logic to this, and there is nothing terribly unlikely about it. He did draw followers. But from some rather humble beginnings, the story turns into the 50,000 of Simon Zealotes in Jesus Christ Superstar, or the mob scenes depicted in the movies made about Jesus. And here was the grain of sand around which the pearl of the Passion narrative grew. Perhaps Jesus’ entourage did make a bit too much noise, or too much of a spectacle, or interfered with someone or something and drew the attention of the Temple authorities. But did this lead to Jesus’ arrest? Probably not.

In Matthew’s narrative the Cleansing of the Temple was also part of the events of Palm Sunday. This, I feel confident to say, did not happen. This is exactly the sort of disruptive behaviour that would have gotten him arrested on the spot. Neither the Jews nor the Romans would have countenanced a ruckus in the Temple precinct, especially not with the swollen and possibly edgy crowd of visitors to Jerusalem. The question becomes, how odd of a thing was this to invent? My first instinct was “very odd”, but upon further reflection, perhaps not. The Temple commerce was a big deal; the Temple and the priests likely made money on this. So if you wanted to invent something that would irk them, a disruption of this commerce would be a very understandable tale to tell. Plus, it has the advantage of making them seem venal, and not particularly religious since they were only in it for the money.

So the procession into Jerusalem is possible, perhaps even likely. The cleansing of the Temple, perhaps not so much.

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Matthew Chapter 21:18-32

We continue on with the chapter. In the first section, we had the events that became immortalised as Palm Sunday, that ended with the Cleansing of the Temple. We pick the next morning, after Jesus and all spent the night in Bethany.

18 Πρωῒ δὲ ἐπανάγων εἰς τὴν πόλιν ἐπείνασεν.

19 καὶ ἰδὼν συκῆν μίαν ἐπὶ τῆς ὁδοῦ ἦλθεν ἐπ’ αὐτήν, καὶ οὐδὲν εὗρεν ἐν αὐτῇ εἰ μὴ φύλλα μόνον, καὶ λέγει αὐτῇ, Μηκέτι ἐκ σοῦ καρπὸς γένηται εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα. καὶ ἐξηράνθη παραχρῆμα ἡ συκῆ.

20 καὶ ἰδόντες οἱ μαθηταὶ ἐθαύμασαν λέγοντες, Πῶς παραχρῆμα ἐξηράνθη ἡ συκῆ;

21 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁἸησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐὰν ἔχητε πίστιν καὶ μὴ διακριθῆτε, οὐ μόνον τὸ τῆς συκῆς ποιήσετε, ἀλλὰ κἂν τῷ ὄρει τούτῳ εἴπητε, Ἄρθητι καὶ βλήθητι εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν, γενήσεται:

22 καὶ πάντα ὅσα ἂν αἰτήσητε ἐν τῇ προσευχῇ πιστεύοντες λήμψεσθε.

It having become morning, arising he went into the city. (19) And seeing a solitary fig tree from the road, he went to it, and he found nothing on it if not leaves, and he said to it, “May never from you fruit become forever.” And the tree withered immediately. (20) Ands seeing the disciples were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither immediately?” (21) Answering, Jesus said to them, “Amen I say to you, if you have faith and it is not decided against you, not only you will do of the fig tree, but also should you say to that mountain, ‘Get up and throw yourself into the sea’, it will happen. (22) And all so much as you ask in prayer believing, you will receive”.

There a number of problems with this. The story was in Mark, but Matthew has omitted a really significant detail. Mark tells us that there was no fruit on the tree because it was not the season for it. Presumably, the figs ripen later in the summer, or in the fall, like apples or peaches. But it’s Passover season, which is in the spring. Ergo, of course there was no fruit, and Mark told us exactly that: there was no fruit because it was not the season for it. Matthew seems to have forgotten that one very important detail. Now, presumably, one could figure it out if one knows that Passover is in the spring, but what if the audience is mostly pagan, and doesn’t know when Passover falls? In that case, one would come away with rather a different impression of what just went on. 

Of course the omission of the detail is likely not an accident; one suspects it was deliberate. Let’s face it, in Mark’s version Jesus comes off as something like petulant, a bit childish in a way, acting out by cursing the tree for doing what it’s supposed to do. Or, for blaming it for acting in the way it was designed to operate. If the audience hearing these words was largely pagan, and they didn’t know if Passover was in the season for figs, it would be a reasonable assumption that it was fig season; in which case, the tree could be assumed to be barren, so there is no great loss when it withers. In this case, Jesus is only performing some prudent horticultural chore, removing a barren tree.

One other thing just occurred to me. Mark told us that Jesus was looking for figs because he was hungry. That is omitted as well. So we have Matthew re-shaping some of the aspects of the tale here. Jesus is no longer hungry. And he doesn’t go looking for figs in the spring when anyone with half a brain knows that figs don’t ripen until the summer/fall. I’m not going to wander into an apple orchard in April and expect to find apples; why on earth would Jesus expect to find figs? Then, when he doesn’t find them, he curses the tree and causes it to wither. No, all of these are rather unseemly behaviours from the divine son of God. Divine beings don’t get hungry; they don’t expect fruit to be ripe in the spring; and they don’t curse a tree because it hasn’t defied nature and produced fruit out of season. All of these are just things that the Messiah should not do. So Jesus doesn’t do any of them in Matthew’s version of the story.

Given this, we could ask why Matthew includes the story at all. There is probably no good answer for that. The main thing seems to be because, overall, Matthew is loathe to jettison anything that Mark has produced. There are a few things, like Jesus’ first healing of the man with the withered hand in the synagogue in Caphernaum, which was Jesus’ first real public act in Mark. And there are a few others, but very few others. Matthew used something like 80 or 90% of Mark’s content. This, I think, provides some useful insight into the power of Mark’s narrative, and the effect it had on the followers of Jesus. The reluctance to remove things indicates that Mark’s story was pretty well known, and that things could not be omitted without very good reason. In turn, I believe, this helps explain why Matthew felt another gospel was necessary. Mark gave us the events, but his Jesus was all-too-human; he was not decisively divine. He did things like get hungry and curse trees for not bearing fruit out of season–after he went looking for fruit at the wrong time of the year. Matthew had to smooth out some of those aspects of Jesus’ nature. A human Jesus was no longer appropriate for the more elevated status that Jesus had taken, and so Matthew had to address that problem and remove the doubts about who–and what–Jesus was.

This latter question is amply demonstrated by the fate of the tree. And here, too, Matthew differs slightly from Mark. The former has, once again, compressed Mark’s narrative, compacting it into a shorter time-sequence. In the original, Jesus cursed the tree in the morning. Then, when they return to Bethany in the evening, only then do they see that the tree has withered. Here, it happens instantaneously. This is an ample demonstration of Jesus’ sheer power: he can cause a tree to wither and die simply by saying the word. The question then becomes, if Matthew wishes to downplay the miraculous element of Jesus’ ministry, why emphasize it in this way? It’s really difficult to answer this with any degree of certainty, or even to propose a semi-reasonable theory. I suspect it has something to do with the reasons why Matthew is very reluctant to flat-out omit anything in Mark. Given that he has to include the story, he chooses to compress the time frame, which means emphasizing Jesus’ power to a certain degree. 

But the power isn’t just power for its own sake. Rather, it leads to what is nowadays called a teachable moment. Amazing as the display of power is, however, this is something available to all of us, if we but have faith. And here, perhaps, is the crux of the problem that Matthew has with Jesus’ miracles. Now, we perhaps court danger by taking Jesus’ words literally, that we actually, in the real, physical world, can actually move a mountain. Is this, truly, a description of reality? Or is it simply hyperbole, an exaggeration meant to make a point? I think the answer is “yes”. It’s both of these things. I think there was a sense in which this was taken seriously and literally, but in a very spiritual sense. This is, after all, part of what the essence of a religion is, the idea that while we take it on the mundane plane, but simultaneously project it into spiritual Truth, which is to say a symbol of something beyond. In all hagiographical literature, starting with Acts, one thing that the saints all do is suspend the laws of nature. In fact, this is one of the criteria the Catholics use to for canonization: whether the candidate can be credited with actual miracles.

18 Mane autem revertens in civitatem, esuriit.

19 Et videns fici arborem unam secus viam, venit ad eam; et nihil invenit in ea nisi folia tantum et ait illi: “Numquam ex te fructus nascatur in sempiternum”. Et arefacta est continuo ficulnea.

20 Et videntes discipuli mirati sunt dicentes: “Quomodo continuo aruit ficulnea?”.

21 Respondens autem Iesus ait eis: “Amen dico vobis: Si habueritis fidem et non haesitaveritis, non solum de ficulnea facietis, sed et si monti huic dixeritis: “Tolle et iacta te in mare”, fiet.

22 Et omnia, quaecumque petieritis in oratione credentes, accipietis”.

23 Καὶ ἐλθόντος αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸ ἱερὸν προσῆλθον αὐτῷ διδάσκοντι οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι τοῦ λαοῦ λέγοντες, Ἐν ποίᾳ ἐξουσίᾳ ταῦτα ποιεῖς; καὶ τίς σοι ἔδωκεν τὴν ἐξουσίαν ταύτην;

And they having come to the Temple, they came to him teaching the high priests and the elders of the people saying, “In what sort of authority do you do these things? And who to you gave this authority?” 

First, there does not seem to be a serious conflict here. Yes, there is an edge of tension, the high priests and elders are a bit defensive. Recall, however, that, supposedly, the day before, this man came in and knocked over tables and chairs and put a damper on the commercial activity that benefitted these same priests. With all that, it seems that they should be more than a bit miffed. It seems more likely that they would have had Jesus arrested on sight. Or, it seems like he should have been arrested the day before, when he had perpetrated the acts. And the line about “being afraid of the uproar of the people” doesn’t really ring true when we consider that Jesus caused so much commotion. I suspect that a lot of those attending the festival may have applauded Jesus’ arrest for disturbing the peace in such a raucous manner. After all, they were there to perform the requisite sacrifice, and Jesus was preventing them from doing this. I suppose that it may have been one thing to have the Temple guards carry him off, and quite another to have the Romans come in and do it. Were there Temple guards? Given the high level of commercial activity, one has to believe there had to be, especially since the presence of pagans in the Temple was problematic at best.

So, all in all, the probability that the whole cleansing of the Temple actually happened seems to be pretty low. So how did the story start? And how did it gain credibility? As we saw with Albert Schweitzer, there is a strong compulsion to believe that Jesus did something to warrant being arrested and executed. EP Sandars has posited this as the most likely reason this happened. And there is a certain appeal of logic to this; but just because we want it to be so doesn’t make it so. We have to go back to Paul: either he didn’t know, or he knew and didn’t tell us. And if he knew and didn’t tell us, he either thought it was irrelevant or embarrassing. So that is three possibilities; two of them indicate that the reason was trivial. If Paul didn’t know, chances are the cause had been something non-momentous, something pretty low-level, like spitting on the sidewalk. Or, if Paul knew and thought it was trivial, this comes to much the same thing as not knowing. In either case, the motive for Jesus’ arrest simply didn’t amount to much worth recounting. That is, he was executed for spitting on the sidewalk. And let’s recall that the gospels really don’t point to anything as the cause, either. Oh, they insinuate the jealousy of the high priests, and the Pharisees, and several other groups, and they pin it, ultimately, on Joseph Caiaphas because he thought Jesus was a problem. For whatever reason.

All this vagueness and innuendo, all of it points to a reason that was not particularly noteworthy. No one knew because the reason was so minor. It never made the headlines. It just wasn’t talked about because it didn’t seem to be a big deal at the time. It only became one when Jesus was raised from the dead. But even then, the reason Jesus was executed wasn’t important enough for Paul to give us an explanation, or even mention it. Because it didn’t matter. All of this indicates, I believe, that the reason Jesus was executed had little or nothing to do with his ministry.

I say this because the way the question is framed, it has a very theoretical feel to it. And that is–Spoiler Alert!–borne out in subsequent verses. But let’s stop a minute to let the question sink in: by whose authority? Who gave the authority? Those are interesting, but most interesting is “to do the things that you do?” Note that this isn’t about the things he’s done, or that he did. Coming the day after the Cleansing of the Temple, one would expect this to be “who gave you the authority to do what you did?” That is much more specific. The vagueness with which the question is framed, I think, is additional proof that the episode of the Temple cleansing did not really happen. The question is much better suited to sort of a debate in the synagogue. As for the authority, let’s read on.

23 Et cum venisset in templum, accesserunt ad eum docentem principes sacerdotum et seniores populi dicentes: “In qua potestate haec facis? Et quis tibi dedit hanc potestatem?”.

24 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Ἐρωτήσω ὑμᾶς κἀγὼ λόγον ἕνα, ὃν ἐὰν εἴπητέ μοι κἀγὼ ὑμῖν ἐρῶ ἐν ποίᾳ ἐξουσίᾳ ταῦτα ποιῶ:

25 τὸ βάπτισμα τὸ Ἰωάννου πόθεν ἦν; ἐξ οὐρανοῦ ἢ ἐξ ἀνθρώπων; οἱ δὲ διελογίζοντο ἐν ἑαυτοῖς λέγοντες, Ἐὰν εἴπωμεν, Ἐξ οὐρανοῦ, ἐρεῖ ἡμῖν, Διὰ τί οὖν οὐκ ἐπιστεύσατε αὐτῷ;

26 ἐὰν δὲ εἴπωμεν, Ἐξ ἀνθρώπων, φοβούμεθα τὸν ὄχλον, πάντες γὰρ ὡς προφήτην ἔχουσιν τὸν Ἰωάννην.

27 καὶ ἀποκριθέντες τῷ Ἰησοῦ εἶπαν, Οὐκ οἴδαμεν. ἔφη αὐτοῖς καὶ αὐτός, Οὐδὲ ἐγὼ λέγω ὑμῖν ἐν ποίᾳ ἐξουσίᾳ ταῦτα ποιῶ.

Answering, Jesus said to them, “I will ask you and I will give one reason, which if you answer me and I will answer in which authority these things I do. (25) The baptism of John from whence (did it come)? From the sky or from men?” They conferred amongst themselves, saying, “If we say from the sky, you will say to us ‘through what therefore did you not believe him?’ (26) If we say from men, we fear the crowd, for all as a prophet hold John. (27) And answering to Jesus they said, “We do not know”. And he said to them, “I will not say to you in which authority these things I do”.

The first point is relatively minor, but it’s worth noting. Matthew almost always pluralizes it to “the heavens”. Mark, OTOH, used the singular form, which could be–perhaps should be–translated as “the sky”. Most translations render it as ‘heaven’, with a lower case ‘h’. It’s just the sort of thing with which to be careful. “Heaven”, even in lower case, is a very loaded word for us. In the ancient world there was a general sense that god/God did live in the sky, and that is present in the meaning of the word Mark and Matthew use. Even so, ‘heaven’ has too many connotations of Pearly Gates and angels playing harps. It should be avoided. Maybe “the celestial realm”?

The next item is the mention of fear of crowd. This was given as a reason why the high priests had to be wary about having Jesus arrested. They were afraid that the Festival crowd, which was often unruly at best, would find this to be an outrage, and so would provoke a riot. Supposedly this is why Jesus wasn’t arrested when he cleared the Temple. Bear in mind, however, that this is exactly what they ultimately did according to the story. They arrested Jesus and had him executed just as the Festival was ready to begin. And yet, there was no riot, nor any disturbance at all, really. The execution happened, and everyone went about their business. Josephus mentioned nothing especially noteworthy, just that there was a pervasive tension in the city during the Festival in general.

With those issues out of the way, we can get to the main ideas presented. These are, the importance of John, that he was a prophet, and that at least some thought that he had the sanction of heaven, even if he wasn’t divine himself. Of course, being a prophet entails having the blessing and the direction of heaven. That’s what makes someone a prophet. Of course, bystanders and onlookers were told by the disciples that Jesus was a prophet as he was entering Jerusalem on (what came to be called) Palm Sunday. Is this a coincidence, that the two of them are labeled prophets within such a short stretch of text? What is doubly interesting about this double use off the term is that Mark does not say that Jesus was called a prophet, except in the run-up to the Transfiguration, just prior to Peter’s proclamation, when Mark reports that “others” are saying that Jesus is a prophet. So, on the one hand, we have Matthew adding to Mark by making sure we know that Jesus is divine, but on the other we have Matthew confusing the issue by having called Jesus a prophet during the triumphal entry. Or was that designation designed to imply that not all of Jesus’ followers quite grasped Jesus’ identity?

This is neither an idle nor a rhetorical question. Rather, it has to do with the overall scope and plan of this gospel. As mentioned repeatedly, Matthew’s handling of the Q material in the Sermon on the Mount is called “masterful”, among other glowing adjectives. My problem is, how do we reconcile this masterful plan with issues like “editorial fatigue”, in which he loses track of what he’s saying, changing verb tenses or the number and/or person of the main verb, or just generally muddles what are two separate versions of the story; he started out changing Mark, but half-way through he lost his train of thought and went back to copying verbatim–more or less. Frankly, these seem to be pretty much incompatible traits. 

The point? This is a great demonstration of how badly scholars want Luke and Matthew to be independent sources. That would mean that Q has to be real. That is the point. Why? With Q we can cling to the chance, however small, that something in Matthew or Luke goes back to Jesus. That is the goal. With Luke dependent on Matthew, then Q becomes unnecessary, and highly improbable. So we have to invent this genius of Matthew so that Luke’s treatment of the Q material becomes substandard, and so Luke could not have possibly read Matthew’s “masterful” handling of the Q material. So things like this, in which Matthew shows himself to be internally inconsistent, or at least less-than-thorough, are very damaging to the “masterful” skill of Matthew as an editor. 

That’s why I’m so insistent on bringing them to the fore.

As a final note, let’s take a step back and think about what actually happened in this narrative, about the actual exchange that Matthew reports as having occurred between Jesus and his interlocutors. On the one hand, there’s an aroma of “too clever by half” wafting about it, the sort of witty exchange that most people only think of ten minutes later. On the other, it’s not at all impossible that something like this truly did happen, in whatever attenuated or altered form. One aspect that strikes me as very real is the ambivalence of the Temple authorities towards John. Generally in such circumstances, the reverence for John’s holiness would have increased as the time of his death receded into the past. As someone recently executed, it would be difficult for anyone in a position of authority to admit to too much admiration for an enemy of the state. But, with the passing of time, as passions about John cooled, and as his followers drifted off to follow others, the danger would diminish and it would be more acceptable to talk about John with approval.  Given that the high priests are willing to admit that it was possible that John had the sanction of heaven, we would suppose that some time had passed since John’s death. Neither gospel is particularly clear on when this happened; only that John was arrested at some point early in Jesus’ ministry, seemingly fairly shortly after Jesus had been baptized by John.

Now, while doing some routine checking of sources to see if there was any evidence to indicate when John might have died, I came across something that really messes with the whole chronology of Jesus’ ministry and death. Josephus pretty much agrees with the gospels that John was executed because he disapproved of Herod Antipas’ (0r Antipater) marriage to Herodias, who had been married to Antipas’ brother, who was, conveniently, also named Herod. The brother is referred to as Herod II. The problem arises when we note that Antipas married Herodias sometime around 34 CE. So that provides a terminus post quem for John’s execution. That is, if Jesus was executed after John, then Jesus’ death had to occur sometime between 34 and 36 CE. The latter date is when Antipas was defeated by the father of the wife Antipas divorced to marry Herodias. Josephus tells us that many Jews considered Antipas’ defeat to be God’s way of punishing Antipas for having executed John. 

However, Jesus was traditionally executed sometime before this; the traditional date is somewhere around 33, based on Luke’s chronology. And, most scholarship sort of assumes that Jesus’ death occurred earlier in the decade than the period 34-36. If John wasn’t executed until, say, 35, then Jesus’ death more likely happened in the last half of the decade. There would be all sorts of implications to be derived from this. This question is far outside the scope of the task at hand; but what I find absolutely astonishing is that I’ve never come across this in any of the books I’ve been reading about Jesus, his death, etc. This is kind of a big deal, but NT scholarship is largely silent on the matter, despite it being readily available on Wikipedia. Pilate’s term of office ended in 36; Jesus, presumably was killed before that; the new chronology need not affect the date of Jesus’ death, but it does have serious ramifications for the relationship of John and Jesus. Much as I’d like to hash this out now, I really need to leave it. Suffice it to say that one possibility is that this exchange took place later in the decade, after Jesus was also dead. Perhaps this conversation took place between the high priests and James, brother of the lord.

24 Respondens autem Iesus dixit illis: “ Interrogabo vos et ego unum sermonem, quem si dixeritis mihi, et ego vobis dicam, in qua potestate haec facio:

25 Baptismum Ioannis unde erat? A caelo an ex hominibus? ”. At illi cogitabant inter se dicentes: “ Si dixerimus: “E caelo”, dicet nobis: “Quare ergo non credidistis illi?”;

26 si autem dixerimus: “Ex hominibus”, timemus turbam; omnes enim habent Ioannem sicut prophetam”.

27 Et respondentes Iesu dixerunt: “Nescimus”. Ait illis et ipse: “Nec ego dico vobis in qua potestate haec facio”.

28 Τί δὲ ὑμῖν δοκεῖ; ἄνθρωπος εἶχεν τέκνα δύο. καὶ προσελθὼν τῷ πρώτῳ εἶπεν, Τέκνον, ὕπαγε σήμερον ἐργάζου ἐν τῷ ἀμπελῶνι.

29 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Οὐ θέλω, ὕστερον δὲ μεταμεληθεὶς ἀπῆλθεν.

30 προσελθὼν δὲ τῷ ἑτέρῳ εἶπεν ὡσαύτως. ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Ἐγώ, κύριε: καὶ οὐκ ἀπῆλθεν.

31 τίς ἐκ τῶν δύο ἐποίησεν τὸ θέλημα τοῦ πατρός; λέγουσιν, Ὁ πρῶτος. λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οἱ τελῶναι καὶ αἱ πόρναι προάγουσιν ὑμᾶς εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ.

32 ἦλθεν γὰρ Ἰωάννης πρὸς ὑμᾶς ἐν ὁδῷ δικαιοσύνης, καὶ οὐκ ἐπιστεύσατε αὐτῷ: οἱ δὲ τελῶναι καὶ αἱ πόρναι ἐπίστευσαν αὐτῷ: ὑμεῖς δὲ ἰδόντες οὐδὲ μετεμελήθητε ὕστερον τοῦ πιστεῦσαι αὐτῷ.

“How does this seem to you? A man has two sons. And going to the first/oldest he says, ‘Son, get up today and go work in the vineyard’. (29) But he (the son) answering says, ‘I don’t want to’. Later, having had a change of intent, he went.

(30) “Going to the other, he (the father) spoke in the same way. He (the son) answering, said, ‘I (will go), lord’. And he did not go.

(31) “Which of the two did the will of the father?” They said, “The first”. Jesus said to them, “Amen I say to you, that the tax collectors and the prostitutes will precede you into the kingdom of God. (32) For John came to you on the road of righteousness, and you did not believe him. The tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. You seeing did not repent later of your faith in him”.

This whole thing is another pagans superseding Jews story, I think. Or is it? The parable is not in Mark, so it almost certainly doesn’t date back to Jesus. Otherwise, I might have been tempted to see this as an early version of the superseding process; but, rather than pagans superseding Jews, it was the sinners superseding the righteous. But that theme seems a bit too primitive; by this point in the development of Christian doctrine, one would expect to be passed that point and onto the pagans. After all, I’ve been talking about this for pretty much the whole of Matthew, and a good chunk of Mark as well. So the theme gives me pause. One possible solution that comes to mind is that the actor in the story is not Jesus, but perhaps James; however, I’m not sure that really fits, either. Without any of these other features, we’re kind of left with taking the story at face value: it was meant to inform us that the uptight righteous folk are out on their ear, while the sinners have the key to the front door.

And as I’ve been learning more about Judaism, and in particular the content of the HS, I’ve been finding that more and more of what I thought were “Christian” traits are actually a big part of the morality and social message of the HS. The distinction between Christian and Judaic morality is not very distinct. There is one thing, however, that does set the message of Jesus apart from that of the HS. It’s the message of inclusion; or, really, the message of “the last shall be first”, the idea that Jesus came for the sinners and not The Holy. This is driven home most effectively, I think, by the story of the Prodigal Son. Above all others, I think, that one summarizes the message of Jesus. And this parable is part of that progression. It’s not the high priests that are doing the will of the father, by saying “yes” but doing “no”. Rather, it’s those who rebel at first, but later have a change of heart, or a change of will, or a change of mind.

So, probably nothing exactly earth-shattering here. This is most likely a story made up some time after Jesus died. Perhaps James had something to do with it, perhaps not. But it was made up, I think, fully consistent with many of the principles that I think do date back to Jesus: the welcoming of the sinners, the idea of personal–rather than corporate which was the Jewish norm as the Chosen People–repentance, the idea that a doctor is not needed by the healthy, but by the sick. At the moment, I think that is the crux of Jesus’ message, the aspect of Jesus message that made him stand out from the others, what set him apart from John’s message of repentance. It’s impossible to know for sure, but my conception is that John’s message was conventional to a large degree; that of Jesus wasn’t. But this gets tricky. Think back to John baptizing; the “brood of vipers” analogy is not in Mark; it was added later. Theoretically, this would imply that Jesus’ message may not have been directed quite so directly at the sinners at the outset, but that it had become so by the time Matthew wrote. This being the case, it’s tempting to see the hand of James again, as someone concerned with the poor, and by extension the unwanted, the outcast, the sinners. Perhaps this latter part of the message only came after James, which is an interesting thought and topic for speculation. But probably no more. 

Regardless, this concern for sinners was truly a novel message, one that set this group apart from pretty much all the others. With this message, the new religion could–and did–appeal to a wide range of people, and so to a lot of people.

28 “Quid autem vobis videtur? Homo quidam habebat duos filios. Et accedens ad primum dixit: “Fili, vade hodie, operare in vinea”.

29 Ille autem respondens ait: “Nolo”; postea autem paenitentia motus abiit.

30 Accedens autem ad alterum dixit similiter. At ille respondens ait: “Eo, domine”; et non ivit.

31 Quis ex duobus fecit voluntatem patris? ”. Dicunt: “Primus”. Dicit illis Iesus: “ Amen dico vobis: Publicani et meretrices praecedunt vos in regnum Dei.

32 Venit enim ad vos Ioannes in via iustitiae, et non credidistis ei; publicani autem et meretrices crediderunt ei. Vos autem videntes nec paenitentiam habuistis postea, ut crederetis ei.

Matthew Chapter 21:1-17

With this chapter we begin the Holy Week cycle, opening with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. If you recall from our treatment of Mark, the description there didn’t sound as much like a parade passing along a route filled with new people as it did a single group of maybe a few dozen that formed something like an entourage that surrounded Jesus and walked with him into the city. Of course, Jesus Christ Superstar has Simon the Zealot singing about a crowd of 50,000; that crowd estimate was simply not borne out by the account in Mark. As such, the commentary will probably deal with how Matthew’s story is similar to, and different from, that of Mark.

1 Καὶ ὅτε ἤγγισαν εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα καὶ ἦλθον εἰς Βηθφαγὴ εἰς τὸ Ὄρος τῶν Ἐλαιῶν, τότε Ἰησοῦς ἀπέστειλεν δύο μαθητὰς

2 λέγων αὐτοῖς, Πορεύεσθε εἰς τὴν κώμην τὴν κατέναντι ὑμῶν, καὶ εὐθέως εὑρήσετε ὄνον δεδεμένην καὶ πῶλον μετ’ αὐτῆς: λύσαντες ἀγάγετέ μοι.

3 καὶ ἐάν τις ὑμῖν εἴπῃ τι, ἐρεῖτε ὅτι Ὁ κύριος αὐτῶν χρείαν ἔχει: εὐθὺς δὲ ἀποστελεῖ αὐτούς.

And they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethany to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, (2) saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied (i.e., tied to a post, or something such) and a colt with her. Loosening, bring it to me. And if someone says to you something, say that ‘The master of you has need’.” Immediately he sent them.

Just a few points to make. From this description, it sounds like both Bethany and the Mount of Olives are outside the walls of Jerusalem proper. This is reinforced by the fact that Jesus sends them into “the village”. The standard meaning of this in Classical Greek is that of an unwalled town, as opposed to a town fortified with walls. Jerusalem, of course, was fortified, so the implication is that Bethany is outside. And later we will be told that Jesus was to stay in Bethany for the the night. A reasonable inference is that Jesus is sending his disciples into Bethany to the house of one of his followers, whom Jesus knows to have an ass with a colt.

Note that the existence of the ass is a new detail that was not present in Mark. If you’ll recall, the word “colt” is generic enough that it could refer to the offspring of either a horse or a donkey. Perhaps familiar with the ambiguity, Matthew clarifies for us. That it is a donkey will be important later. Other than that, this is pretty much taken directly from Mark.

1 Et cum appropinquassent Hierosolymis et venissent Bethfage, ad montem Oliveti, tunc Iesus misit duos discipulos

2 dicens eis: “Ite in castellum, quod contra vos est, et statim invenietis asinam alligatam et pullum cum ea; solvite et adducite mihi.

3 Et si quis vobis aliquid dixerit, dicite: “Dominus eos necessarios habet”, et confestim dimittet eos”.

4 Τοῦτο δὲ γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος,

5 Εἴπατε τῇ θυγατρὶ Σιών, Ἰδοὺ ὁ βασιλεύς σου ἔρχεταί σοι, πραῢς καὶ ἐπιβεβηκὼς ἐπὶ ὄνον, καὶ ἐπὶ πῶλον υἱὸν ὑποζυγίου.

This was done in order that the writing be fulfilled according to the prophet saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘behold the king of you comes to you, meek and coming upon an ass, and upon a colt the son of a draught animal.” 

The last word originally meant any animal yoked for farm labour. However, according Liddell & Scott, it became specifically a donkey* in the NT. Almost all of the examples they cite for this are from the NT, and one is from the LXX. There is a certain amount of animal husbandry, zoology, and agricultural knowledge that goes into assessing this definition. What it implies is that in the ancient Near East, the donkey was the standard draft animal. Elsewhere, it was generally the ox. Oxen are much larger and more powerful animals, but for that reason are more expensive to keep. A donkey, the domesticated form of the onager in that part of the world, was probably less expensive because it could forage to some degree, and not require as much fodder [ I don’t know this for sure, but it seems plausible ]. So the idea is sort of like, just as all tissues are called “Kleenex” because that is the most famous brand of the product, so all draft animals are donkeys.

*A quick Google search tells me that a donkey is a domesticated ass. A jack ass is a male ass.

The idea of a Jewish king riding a donkey is interesting. Horses are very expensive animals; hence, the words “chevalier” and “caballero” literally are men who ride horses. Tied up with this is the issue of when riding horses became the thing to do. Back in the Bronze Age, horses were used to pull chariots, but the idea of riding them was not terribly wide-spread. The Persians rode horses; one of the famous debates about the Battle of Marathon, in which a small force of Athenians beat a much larger army of Persians, is whether the Persian cavalry participated. Herodotus tells us of the special horse-transport ships that were built to convey the horses from Ionia to mainland Greece. Part of it too, is that horses were native to the steppes north of the Black Sea, which is where they were probably first domesticated. All of this is by way of asking whether an Israelite or Judean king circa 600 BCE  would have ridden a donkey?

This is not a simple question. In the contrary, it’s extremely complicated. The implication of the prophecy is that it was not normal; that riding a donkey would be an act of humility, which is why, I presume, it says that he is “meek” when he comes. The issue is that this question is tied up with when things were actually composed, as opposed to the historical setting when they supposedly took place. For example, Isaiah is usually put in the 8th Century, before Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, but even a cursory reading or examination will, I think, show that this is patently not true*. Then, there is the added issue that this comes from Deutero-Isaiah, which is generally considered to have been written well after the first part of the book. How much later, of course, is a good question. For my part, I would suggest that the later this was written, the less likely it would be that the king would be riding a donkey. Riding donkeys was probably a royal thing to do back in the 8th or 9th Centuries when horses were scarce. But after the Persian conquest, I think the idea of riding a horse had much wider circulation. As such, that would put the passage of Isaiah into the post-exilic period. But this is a question that should be answered by archaeology. When did donkeys and horses first show up in the archaeological record? When did they become common? When did donkeys become the standard draught animal? All my speculation and historical arguments pale before the evidence of what is buried in the ground.

*I have reasons for this, but I’m not sure this is the time/place to examine them. For now, suffice it to say: Isaiah and several others are called “literary prophets”. Think about that. A prophet does not sit alone in a room and write a scroll. A prophet is someone who goes out and, well, prophesies. Of course, there may have been a prophet Isaiah who did just that, and his prophecies were recorded later, but that’s exactly my point. Unless he had a scribe following behind him, writing down all that he said, the words of “Isaiah” end up being largely composed at that “later” date. I put this “later” in the 6th Century, at the earliest, after the return from the Exile. If pressed, I may consider pushing this back into the period of the Exile, but no further. So much of what Isaiah says is a blatant attempt by the restored kings of Judea to create a rationale for Judea to assert a legal, or at least legitimate, claim to the erstwhile territory of Israel. Much of the OT is like this. For example, Judges, which is held to be a fair record of early days, says in 1:2 that Judah would be the first to attack the Canaanites. And it goes on from there.

4 Hoc autem factum est, ut impleretur, quod dictum est per prophetam dicentem:

5 “Dicite filiae Sion: / Ecce Rex tuus venit tibi, / mansuetus et sedens super asinam / et super pullum filium subiugalis”.

6 πορευθέντες δὲ οἱ μαθηταὶ καὶ ποιήσαντες καθὼς συνέταξεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς.

Departing, the disciples also did according to the what Jesus had arranged.

Interesting to note that Matthew omits a good-sized chunk of Mark here. Most of it concerns what happened when the disciples found the colt, how they were questioned about it, and how the disciples answered as Jesus told them and so were allowed to go on their way with the animal(s). Why? Again, I think we’ve entered that realm of “magic”; in this case, prophecy. One almost gets the impression that Matthew considered these acts of Jesus to be parlour tricks or something; that is, that they were sort of showy, but not altogether dignified. In short, rather a vulgar display of power, don’t you think? 

6 Euntes autem discipuli fecerunt, sicut praecepit illis Iesus,

7 ἤγαγον τὴν ὄνον καὶ τὸν πῶλον, καὶ ἐπέθηκαν ἐπ’ αὐτῶν τὰ ἱμάτια, καὶ ἐπεκάθισεν ἐπάνω αὐτῶν.

8 ὁ δὲ πλεῖστος ὄχλος ἔστρωσαν ἑαυτῶν τὰ ἱμάτια ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ, ἄλλοι δὲ ἔκοπτον κλάδους ἀπὸ τῶν δένδρων καὶ ἐστρώννυον ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ.

9 οἱ δὲ ὄχλοι οἱ προάγοντες αὐτὸν καὶ οἱ ἀκολουθοῦντες ἔκραζον λέγοντες, Ὡσαννὰ τῷ υἱῷ Δαυίδ: Εὐλογημένος ὁ ἐρχόμενος ἐν ὀνόματι κυρίου: Ὡσαννὰ ἐν τοῖς ὑψίστοις.

Leading the donkey and the colt, and they put down upon them their cloaks, and he sat upon them (the cloaks, presumably). (8) And the multitudinous crowd spread their cloaks in the road, and others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road. (9) And the crowd those going before him and those following him cried out saying, “Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed is he coming in the name of the lord. Hosanna to those most high!” 

The description of the passage is very similar to Mark’s account. And note that Matthew, like Mark, talks of those going ahead of him and those following behind. As a reminder, this description more closely resembles an entourage, a bubble of people before and behind, rather than Jesus passing between rows of people on either side of the road/street. We think of this sort of event as a parade, and this is how we generally think of Jesus’ entry: as a parade, passing between two rows of people on either side of the street. But that is not at all what the description indicates.

And there is one thing I just noticed. Jesus is coming in the name of the lord; he is not coming as the lord. This seems to be a significant distinction between Jesus and The Lord, who is God the Father. Now, is this distinction simply the result of standard Jewish thinking that the Messiah was a human agent of the Lord? Most likely, sure. So once again, this is a pointed reminder that the orthodoxy on Jesus was evolving, that he was morphing from the human Messiah to the Divine Son of God/Messiah. Now, there are those–Boyarin, whom I’ve cited previously–who have attempted to argue that the Jewish thinking on the Messiah was not entirely clear, and that some strains of Judaism, at least, considered that the Messiah was divine. That may well be the case, but generally, the Messiah was thought of as human. IIRC.  

7 et adduxerunt asinam et pullum; et imposuerunt super eis vestimenta sua, et sedit super ea.

8 Plurima autem turba straverunt vestimenta sua in via; alii autem caedebant ramos de arboribus et sternebant in via.

9 Turbae autem, quae praecedebant eum et quae sequebantur, clamabant dicentes: “Hosanna filio David! Benedictus, qui venit in nomine Domini! Hosanna in altissimis!”.

10 καὶ εἰσελθόντος αὐτοῦ εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα ἐσείσθη πᾶσα ἡ πόλις λέγουσα, Τίς ἐστιν οὗτος;

11 οἱ δὲ ὄχλοι ἔλεγον, Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ προφήτης Ἰησοῦς ὁ ἀπὸ Ναζαρὲθ τῆς Γαλιλαίας.

And he coming into Jerusalem, the whole city shook, saying “Who is this?” (11) And the crowd said, “He is the prophet Jesus, he from Nazareth of Galilee.

A bunch of interesting little things here. The first is the distinction between Bethany and Jerusalem. The first was described as a village/town/unfortified smallish settlement; Jerusalem is called a city. This makes absolutely clear (I think) that the colt and the donkey were found in Bethany, a village outside of the walls.

Second, note that Matthew here adds that the whole city shook, presumably with excitement. Now we have something approaching (if not fulfilling) our usual picture of this as truly a triumphal entry, something in which a very large number of the citizens of Jerusalem participated. That this does not entirely fit with the description of the entry, with Jesus advancing in the midst of an entourage, as it were, is a pretty good demonstration of how Matthew was trying to elevate Jesus, and the entire event. Matthew doesn’t care if the two don’t exactly support each other, that his story is not completely internally consistent. This is Truth; accuracy doesn’t matter.

Finally, and most interestingly, is the crowd’s response to the question posed by those in Jerusalem. They ask “who is this”, and Matthew has the crowd respond by saying “this is the prophet Jesus…” What is most salient about this, I believe, is that this was not in Mark. Matthew added it of his own accord. The part that makes this noteworthy is that a prophet was entirely a human figure; unlike with the Messiah, there is no minority opinion like that of Boyarin, claiming that the prophets were divine creatures. But this is exactly what Matthew tells us: the prophet Jesus. Now, there is a question. Is Matthew saying this because he believes it, or is he putting these words into the mouths of Jesus’ followers to indicate that, even at this late date, they thought of him as a human prophet? I am inclined to the latter explanation. I have no real evidence to support this, but it’s the sense I get based on everything else I’ve seen so far. One possibility is that it’s Matthew’s equivalent to Mark’s “Messianic Secret”, in which Jesus was constantly admonishing people and demons and the disciples not to tell anyone who he really was. Why did he do that? Why does Matthew have the followers of Jesus say that Jesus was a prophet? Or are we going down a blind alley by looking for reasons to explain these quirks? That is certainly possible. The point is, however, that we need to be aware of what Matthew is saying, and thereby to realise that we need to ask these questions.

Now, of course there is the possibility that Matthew said this without having any hidden meaning. If one is to assert this, however, one must be mindful about how much purpose one ascribes to the rest of Matthew’s choices. We cannot go about claiming that Matthew is a mastermind who masterfully arranged the (alleged) Q material and then say, “oh well” when asked about his words here. Sure, there are no doubt places where Matthew got fatigued and went from second-person singular to match his narrative to second-person plural because that is what Mark has. If one is going to insist that Matthew was consistent, then one must take some care to be somewhat consistent about how we interpret Matthew’s editorial skills and intent.

10 Et cum intrasset Hierosolymam, commota est universa civitas dicens: “ Quis est hic?”.

11 Turbae autem dicebant: “ Hic est Iesus propheta a Nazareth Galilaeae ”.

12 Καὶ εἰσῆλθεν Ἰησοῦς εἰς τὸ ἱερόν, καὶ ἐξέβαλεν πάντας τοὺς πωλοῦντας καὶ ἀγοράζοντας ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ, καὶ τὰς τραπέζας τῶν κολλυβιστῶν κατέστρεψεν καὶ τὰς καθέδρας τῶν πωλούντων τὰς περιστεράς,

13 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Γέγραπται, Ὁ οἶκός μου οἶκος προσευχῆς κληθήσεται, ὑμεῖς δὲ αὐτὸν ποιεῖτε σπήλαιον λῃστῶν.

And Jesus entered the Temple, and he expelled all the sellers and the buyers in the Temple, and the tables of the money-changers he overthrew, and the seats of those selling the pigeons, (13) and he said to them, “It is written, ‘My house a house of prayer shall be called’, but you have made it a den of thieves”.

The most important thing here is that, once again, Matthew has abridged Mark’s narrative to some extent. In Mark, after his entry, Jesus goes to the Temple, looks around, and then goes back to Bethany for the night. He then returns the next day and clears the temple. Here, of course, it’s all done upon arrival. On the one hand, this is not a big deal. The point is that he cleared the Temple, right? But why change it? It’s another instance when Matthew shortens Mark’s narrative for reasons that are not at all clear; but it seems that it was done for no other reason than to abridge the narrative by trimming away excess verbiage.

It’s also a bit of a blow to those who would say that Matthew wrote first, and that Mark is an abridgement of Matthew. If Mark is shortening, why does he elongate certain stories? And a lot of them? We see it here, we saw it with the compression of the healing of two blind men into a single episode, we saw it with the bleeding woman and the Gerasene demonaic. I do not believe that there are a lot of people who believe that Matthew was the first gospel written, but they are out there, and let it be said that I emphatically and vehemently disagree with that thesis. There is very little evidence for it aside from the belief of the early fathers who thought Matthew was the original, and so put it first in the NT. However, with the early fathers and Matthew-priority camp, we are seeing wishful thinking as a replacement for actual analysis and argument. It would be so much nicer if Matthew wrote first. It would eliminate the need for a messy theory like Q, and it would make it so much more possible that all of Matthew’s words could be easily traced back to Jesus. But I will go on a limb and say that this theory is wrong. Not that it lacks merit as an argument; it is so lacking in merit that it’s close to impossible. IMO.

12 Et intravit Iesus in templum et eiciebat omnes vendentes et ementes in templo, et mensas nummulariorum evertit et cathedras vendentium columbas,

13 et dicit eis: “ Scriptum est: “Domus mea domus orationis vocabitur”. Vos autem facitis eam speluncam latronum ”.

14 Καὶ προσῆλθον αὐτῷ τυφλοὶ καὶ χωλοὶ ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ, καὶ ἐθεράπευσεν αὐτούς.

15 ἰδόντες δὲ οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ γραμματεῖς τὰ θαυμάσια ἃ ἐποίησεν καὶ τοὺς παῖδας τοὺς κράζοντας ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ καὶ λέγοντας, Ὡσαννὰ τῷ υἱῷ Δαυίδ, ἠγανάκτησαν

16 καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Ἀκούεις τί οὗτοι λέγουσιν; ὁδὲ Ἰησοῦς λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ναί: οὐδέποτε ἀνέγνωτε ὅτι Ἐκ στόματος νηπίων καὶ θηλαζόντων κατηρτίσω αἶνον;

17 Καὶ καταλιπὼν αὐτοὺς ἐξῆλθεν ἔξω τῆς πόλεως εἰς Βηθανίαν, καὶ ηὐλίσθη ἐκεῖ.

And approached him the blind and the lame in the Temple, and he healed them. (15) Seeing the high priests and the scribes the marvels which he did and the children shouting in the Temple and saying, “Hosanna to the son of David”, they approached (16) and said to him, “Can you hear what they are saying?” Then Jesus said to them, “Yes. Are you unaware that, ‘From the mouths of children and suckling (babies) you mend a story”. (17) And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany, and he passed the night there.

There are a few points to be made here. The most glaring is Verse 14. Jesus has just finished turning over tables and chair, then those seeking to be healed approach and are healed, and only then do the (presumably) Temple officials come up and speak to him? And the thing is, they don’t even seem to be particularly concerned about upsetting the commerce; what bothers them is that the children are proclaiming him the son of David. Really? 

Does that sequence of events, or description of events not seem a bit odd?

There are some–Sandars, IIRC–that believe that the cleansing of the Temple was the act that got Jesus arrested. But, in Mark’s story, Jesus cleared the Temple and then came back the next day and had a casual chat with the Temple authorities. And here, well, it’s even worse. He overthrows the tables and then hangs around to heal the lame? This story is simply not credible. And it’s not even like we are told that the Temple authorities are off plotting Jesus’ death. They’re sort of taking a poll: can you hear? And we’re not even told that they’re angry, or frightened, or anything. Just asking questions. Have to say, based on the overall story, you could cut out the three verses that describe the “cleansing” and the narrative wouldn’t indicate there was a hole. As a result of all this, I have to conclude that the Cleansing of the Temple never actually happened. I say this even though John tells us that Jesus did it twice.

One other interesting aspect to this is Jesus’ response to the question “can you hear what they’re saying. It is usually translated as “you have perfected praise”, where I have translated it “you mend a story”. Yes, I did this just to be annoying, but there is a purpose. My translation is what both the words for mend/perfect and story/praise most commonly mean. For example, Mark and Matthew use the first word to describe the sons of Zebedee as “mending their nets” when Jesus calls them. From here, one can see the progression to “to complete” and so “to perfect”. But L&S do not cite “to perfect/make perfect” as a standard meaning for the word. It does cite Matthew 4:21 as an example for “to mend”, but it does not cite this passage as a meaning for “to perfect”. The word is used 13 times in the NT; in six of those, the meaning is other than “to perfect”. So even NT usage for the word is not overwhelmingly in favour of “to perfect”. The second word, always translated as “praise (n)”, is used twice in the NT, both as “praise”. The word has this meaning in The Odyssey and in Pindar, but basically nowhere else. However, the Vulgate does render this as ‘to perfect praise’. So, despite all the protestations that we have to go back to the original Greek in creating new translations only goes so far.

The point of all this is to demonstrate that to render this as “to perfect praise” requires a certain amount of mental gymnastics with the meaning of the words. So, just as I did with John the Dunker, so I do here. This is all by way of letting everyone know that these meanings, these readings of translations are not always clear-cut and one-for-one. There is a certain level of ambiguity and consensus involved. And let’s face it: St Jerome was a bishop; he had a vested interest in propagating a certain way of understanding the Bible when he did his translation. Given this, that he glosses the words a bit should not surprise us. Rather, it should make us sit back and consider this long and deeply.

Even beyond all of that, we need to note that Matthew has added Verses 15& 16 to the story of Mark. Why? I suppose the idea is to provide some indication of the widespread acclamation that Jesus received upon entering Jerusalem. It’s more, and more intense than it was in Mark’s gospel. Here we are on our way to the sort of spectacular reception that we now think of when we think of Palm Sunday, an enormous throng (50,000?) all shouting “Hosanna”. This is another step in the process to elevating Jesus, his legend and his stature growing exponentially over the years. Luke will take it even further.

Finally, there is Bethany. As in Mark, Jesus will spend the night in Bethany. Why? As I suggested before, this happens because Jesus had followers in Bethany, but he didn’t have any in Jerusalem. Later, in Chapter 26, we are told that Jesus was at the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany that the woman (not yet named) came to anoint Jesus with the expensive perfume. Is this where Jesus stayed for the duration of his sojourn in the Jerusalem metropolitan area? Did the ass and the colt belong to Simon the Leper? These are the sorts of connexions that often drive me nuts; however, in this case, I would be willing to consider the likelihood. Based on the Passion narrative, one doesn’t get the impression that Jesus had many friends in the area; as such, the fact that Simon was named may be an indication that this is, indeed, where he stayed. Of course, this makes one wonder–or it should, anyway–about the acclamations that “shook the city” upon Jesus’ entry. It also makes the description of the procession with an entourage into Jerusalem a little more likely. Jesus had a base at Simon’s house, and may have attracted some of Simon’s friends into the fold. These people, then, would have been those who formed the entourage. As for who the children were shouting in the Temple precinct, well, it’s very likely that this didn’t happen.

14 Et accesserunt ad eum caeci et claudi in templo, et sanavit eos.

15 Videntes autem principes sacerdotum et scribae mirabilia, quae fecit, et pueros clamantes in templo et dicentes: “Hosanna filio David”, indignati sunt

16 et dixerunt ei: “Audis quid isti dicant?”. Iesus autem dicit eis: “Utique; numquam legistis: “Ex ore infantium et lactantium perfecisti laudem”?”.

17 Et relictis illis, abiit foras extra civitatem in Bethaniam ibique mansit.