Category Archives: Historical Jesus

Summary Luke Chapter 15

This chapter contains both the stories of the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son. Both are Christian “standards”, or even cliches; many non-observant Christians, or even non-Christians, understand the reference of a ‘prodigal son’ who ‘returns to the fold’ even if the finer points of detail are, at best, vague. The same is perhaps true of the maxim ‘lost sheep’, if to a lesser degree and less specifically. Yet, both of these stories, so fundamental to Christian self-image are unique to Luke; this means there is barely any chance that either of them actually traces back to Jesus. Rather, it is highly likely that Luke composed them both. This likelihood increases, it would seem, when we realize how closely linked the stories are both thematically and in terms of the lesson conveyed. This makes analysis much easier, since it’s really a compare and contrast situation.

First, there is the minor issue of Jesus’ behaviour, specifically the sort of people he hung around with. At the beginning of the chapter we are told that the respectable elements of society tsk-tsk over Jesus’ choice of companions. These latter are described as “tax-collectors (or publicans) and sinners. Christians have long seized on this as meaning the sort of people the Pharisees didn’t like; one meaning of “sinner” is prostitute. The classic example of this is in Luke Chapter 7, where the woman who is a “sinner” anoints Jesus with the contents of an expensive box of perfume. This is understood to mean that she was a prostitute. Of course, at this point I cannot describe how I know this, or where I first heard this, but it was long ago. I’m old enough to remember when Jesus Christ Superstar came out. I was in high school. In this, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a prostitute, and I know that this did not phase me; I fully understood that Mary M was a prostitute. This was one of those things that “everyone knows” about her. The problem is that neither of the other two gospels mention this about the woman. More, in Luke, the introduction of Mary M comes very shortly after this episode, but there is no apparent connexion between the two women. The anointing occurs in the end of Chapter 7; the introduction of Mary M comes a few verses in to Chapter 8. There is neither a grammatical nor a narrative link between the two women. The implication is that, once again, what “everyone knows” has no real scriptural basis. This is where tradition filled in the cracks with anecdotes and explanations. This, in turn, is an excellent demonstration of how stories grow. This is a great demonstration to explain why Matthew and Luke are so much longer than Mark; the story had grown by the time they wrote. There were more anecdotes. And Matthew and Luke more than likely created some of their own.

This is a bit of a digression. The point is that we are told numerous times that Jesus consorted with sinners. When sinners are mentioned, it is often in conjunction with tax collectors, as it is in this chapter. Apropos of this, another thing “everyone knows” is that Jesus spent time with the poor. The interesting thing is that tax collectors were decidedly not poor. Very much the opposite, in fact; they were very rich, and they got rich by squeezing the average person for as much as they could get. (We’ll discuss this more when we get to the story of Zaccheus.) Any sinners hanging around with publicans were not likely to be poor, either. When, exactly, are we shown Jesus consorting with the poor? The Bleeding Woman comes to mind, but that was a one-off contact. He raises the centurion’s slave, and the daughter of Jairus from the dead, but neither of these men were poor. In fact, use of the word for ‘poor’ is very sparse in the gospels. Jesus also spent a lot of time hanging around with Pharisees. The setting for the Lost Sheep is at a dinner with Pharisees. They were generally not poor either, but that is a broad statement that has no real evidence to support it. All that can be adduced is that people who gave the sort of dinner parties that Jesus frequently attended were not likely to be poor. So we have numerous instances of Jesus spending time in the company of the well-off, and very little with him actually consorting with the poor. Interestingly, some for of the word “poor” occurs less than 30 times in the NT. Several of those are repetitions between gospels (poor/poor in spirit; give the money to the poor, etc), so this is not a terribly common theme for Jesus and his followers. It occurs five times each in Mark and Matthew, but three times in the much shorter epistle of James. Luke is the most frequent user, coming in at nine, but it does not appear at all in Acts. The implication seems to be that we need, perhaps, to reconsider just how solicitous of the poor Jesus was. How integral was this message to his mission?

The rest of the chapter is given over to the stories of the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal son, with the parable of the Lost Coin shoe-horned in between. The theme of all stories is being lost and then found. This leads us to ask what it means to be “lost” and “found”. Doing this we immediately run into yet another “everybody knows” situation. Being lost means we’re lost to a life of sin; found, means we’ve found our way back to God and so attained our salvation. We’ve been saved. Funny, thing, however; the term ‘saved’ does not appear even once in this chapter. We saw that ‘poor’ was used less than 30 times in the whole NT; some variation of ‘saved’ occurs more than three times as often, upwards of 100 instances (I lost count of the exact amount; doesn’t matter. It’s a lot) in the NT. But, you say, there is joy in the sky when a lost sheep is found, or the prodigal son returns. This is true. But joy and celebration by whom? By those who have been saved before? Or by God and the Heavenly Host? Remember, the injunction is to repent; that can simply mean to honor the God of Judah, the way that King Hezekiah did in 2 Kings. Note that during a quick skim through some of the HS dealing with the apostasy of Israel and the faithfulness of Judah (most of the time), I did not see the word “saved” at all. Unfortunately, since it’s written in Hebrew I can’t search the Greek on the site I use for translations. I tried– half-heartedly, perhaps– to find a Greek Septuagint that would let me search the Greek for specific words without success. This means I cannot compare vocabulary at this point, which means we cannot be terribly certain about the rejoicing in heaven. There is no reason why we cannot equate being found and being saved; there is nothing to exclude one from the other. We have to ask whether it feels right, if it feels like this is what Luke means by “found”. Being the skeptical, cantankerous sort that I am, I tend not to think so. Luke used the word ‘saved’ enough; he was no stranger to it. So why not here?

Of course, that question cannot be answered. And of course, I have no real argument to convince anyone of my position. It’s a sense I get from having read the text word-for-word as I have, one develops a feel for what the text is doing. Or, one comes to believe that one has developed such a feel. This again, cannot be proven one way or the other. I’m rather surprised that there is not more to say on this. The point is the degree of interpretation required. Just bear that in mind, always. These topics are not nearly as settled as we would like to believe. Even the Reformation Protestants did not take a chainsaw to Tradition nearly to the they imagined. There is still a lot of “everyone knows” thinking that continues to be perpetuated.

 

Advertisements

Luke, Matthew, and Q: addendum to Summary Luke Chapter 1

In going back over the opening verses of Luke, something struck me that I hadn’t noticed the first time around. At the very beginning of Chapter 1, in Verse 5, which initiates the story after the introduction to Theophilos,, Luke places the story of Zacharias in historical context. “In the days of Herod, king of Judea” is how he starts. Later, of course, we are told that Jesus’ birth occurred when Quirinius was governor of Syria. It has been noted that these two events, the days of King Herod and the days of Quirinius did not overlap. King Herod died in what we would deem 4 BCE, and Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6 CE. More, we apparently know that a census of Judea was taken in the years 6/7 CE.

My point is this: given the ten-year gap between Herod and Quirinius, it is hard to reconcile the chronology of the birth of John and the birth of Jesus. Elisabeth is pregnant when Mary goes to visit. Given the flow of the story, we are led to assume that this pregnancy occurred not too long after Zacharias had his encounter with the angel. And we know that Mary was told of her coming pregnancy before she went to visit Elisabeth, the implication being that Mary’s pregnancy occurred with only a relatively short interval between the Annunciation and the conception. So we have the sense that Zacharias encountered the messenger of the lord in the days of Herod, that soon after Elisabeth conceived, that Mary got annunciated (that’s actually a word?) and then conceived, John was born and Jesus was born all in the period of perhaps two years. We are not given that time frame; there is nothing in the narrative to indicate how much time passed in between events, except we know that that something less than nine months elapsed between Mary’s visit and John’s birth because that is human physiology. We are not told, but nowhere do we get the sense that some ten years elapsed between Zacharias’ encounter and the announcement of the census. Yet, this is what would be necessary for the chronology to work, wherein Zacharias was told of his wife’s impending conception in the days of Herod and the birth of Jesus in the census of 6-7 CE.

It is also worth noting that we are told it was in the days of King Herod. This is important because, although there was a succession of Herods, and sometimes more than one at a time, the last King Herod was Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE. The others bore the title of ethnarch, or tetrarch, or something such. I just wanted to make that very clear, since Jesus was sent to see Herod Antipater. He was, IIRC, a son or grandson of King Herod, but Antipater was a tetrarch, one of four men among whom what had once been King Herod’s kingdom was divided.

Why is this important? Because I believe it very clearly indicates that Luke read Matthew’s version of the birth narrative. It’s entirely possible that Luke was simply confused on dates for King Herod. Now, I’ve heard it said that Luke is concerned with moving the center of gravity of the Christian world to Rome, which is why he ends with Paul heading to Rome as a prisoner. More, he is, and has been considered a pagan, and I would suggest he’s writing primarily for pagans; as such, why bother with trying to set this in the time of a Jewish king who’d been dead for close to a hundred years? Yes, there are reasons why he might have done this; I just can’t think of any that really compelling. Yes, it could be a sop to Jewish sensibility, an attempt to be exotic, or something such. But really, it’s such a throwaway line, right at the beginning of the story, before the reader is even fully engaged. We have the references to Jerusalem coming up which should, or at least could, satisfy that by stressing the connexions of Jesus to Judaism and all of that.

To my mind, the best reason to include this is because it’s in Matthew. In this way, Luke creates another connexion between him and Matthew. This is important for Luke, I think, because Luke realizes that he’s telling a completely different birth story than what Matthew told. So to assuage the concerns of those in the audience familiar with Matthew, Luke plants these little hooks throughout his own narrative, all of them designed to feel familiar, to make his very different narrative feel familiar to those who had heard Matthew’s version. So Luke starts us off with Herod, the Herod that had played such a prominent role in Matthew. Then Luke adds the angels coming and going and announcing miraculous births, and keeps the action in Bethlehem, throws in Joseph for good measure, all capped off with the virgin birth.

Herod provides one more link between the two evangelists. Based on the list just given, we’re up to almost half-a-dozen such links. That seems like a pretty good chain of ideas. It’s way too many to be coincidence. And this deliberate skirting of Matthew’s narrative, all the while simultaneously making sure that there are echoes of Matthew throughout may show itself again, later in the gospel.

Summary Luke Chapter 1-Update

The very large bulk of this chapter is dedicated to the story of John the Baptist. Or, rather, it’s given over to his rather miraculous origins. As such, calling this the Chapter of John the Baptist is not much of a stretch. Yes, we also have the story of the Annunciation, which became a major event on the Catholic calendar, but that is really sort of shoe-horned in amongst the tale of John’s parents and his parentage. This attention to John should tell us a lot about what the early church thought about Jesus’ precursor.

There have been countless times when I have encountered protestations that the early church was embarrassed by the connexion of Jesus to the Baptist. This chapter should drive a stake through the heart of that idea; indeed, this chapter should have driven that stake centuries ago. Time and again I have pointed out that one does not expand the attention given to a character that is supposed to be an embarrassment. Mark introduces John; there, if one is not paying attention, one could consider John is decidedly a second-, or even third-tier character. He appears, we are told a bit about him, he baptises Jesus, he gets executed. But think about that; given that Mark is not a terribly long gospel, the amount of space given to John is not inconsequential. So, even in Mark, we have the sense that John is someone important. Worse, from the Christian standpoint, is that Jesus seeks out John, and the John is the one performing the ritual baptism on Jesus, putting the Jesus in a decidedly inferior position. This is the source of the embarrassment.

If we accept that early, or proto-Christians found this embarrassing, we should expect that Matthew would take steps to downplay, or even omit entirely, the episode of the baptism. On the contrary, Matthew increases John’s role by giving him dialogue. More, this dialogue is supposedly part of Q, which supposedly means this dialogue was deemed important enough to be included in what is suppose to be a collection of Jesus’ teachings. More, it was included in Christian lore from a very early time in the development of the belief system. So, on one hand, John was embarrassing, but his teaching was included in sayings of Jesus; the two of those don’t quite match, do they? This is, yet another, indication that Q is not to be taken seriously; the definition of what Q is supposed to be changes to fit the circumstances the Q people wish to explain. John’s “brood of vipers” speech is found in Matthew and (spoiler alert!) Luke, but not Mark. Ergo, by definition, it had to have been part of Q or the tidy package of Q’s contents begins to unravel a bit. If there is material in Matthew and Luke that is not in Mark, but it’s not part of Q, then that opens the door to questions about what else in Matthew and Luke but not Mark (M&LbnM) might not be part of Q? And if we start picking out such pieces, the raison d’être for Q starts to come apart.

So, if Q is eliminated–as it should have been a century ago–and yet Matthew gave John dialogue that was not in Mark, then we are faced with the situation where Matthew is focusing even more on a personage about whom he’s supposed to be embarrassed. But wait, there’s more. Luke then follows up with expanding John’s story even more. The result of this expansion is the bulk of this chapter. This enlargement of John’s character fits very nicely into the way that legends grow. A name is remembered–or invented–in the first layer of the story. As time passes, the name attracts stories. I keep going back to the Arthur legend, but it is such a good example of the process. First we get Launcelot. Then Guinevere (or the other way around). Then we get their adulterous affair. Then Launcelot has a bastard son. Then that bastard son is given a name, and eventually Galahad becomes one of the knights who find the Grail. And so on. So, in the early layer, we get John. Matthew kinda sorta gives John some lines, the sort of thing that he thinks John woulda shoulda coulda said. Then Luke comes along and gives John a lineage. And not only is John not swept under the rug, he’s made into a kinsman of Jesus! They are first cousins!

Really, though, what Luke has done is to complete the domestication of John. The embarrassment of John was that Jesus began by seeking him out for baptism, putting Jesus in the subordinate role; it wasn’t John per se. Matthew, rather half-heartedly, attempts to solve the problem by having John demur upon Jesus’ request for baptism, John saying that it is he who should be baptised by Jesus. Very nice, but not enough for Luke. The new interpretation that Luke provides is brilliant, because it both elevates John while subordinating him even further. For when Mary goes to visit, even in utero John recognises that he is in the presence of the divine lord. His mother states that she is truly blessed to be visited by the mother of her lord. Zacharias provides a prophesy that is sort of a greatest hits from the HS, a compilation of prophecies that could be applied to Jesus, but all of them emphasizing John’s role as the precursor and herald of the mightier Jesus. It is Jesus who is the one everyone has been waiting for. John has been sent to make straight Jesus’ path. All of this emphasizes and re-emphasizes that it is John, not Jesus, who plays the subordinate role.

Even so, Luke subordinates John while raising him to nearly divine heights himself. John’s conception is modeled after that of Isaac, and no one with even a cursory knowledge of Hebrew myth would–could–miss this. John is conceived by a barren woman who is past the age of child-bearing, just as Sarah was before Elisabeth. In other words, John was important enough to the cosmic scheme that God himself intervened in order to make sure that John is conceived. And beyond that, he sent a messenger to tell Zacharias, just as the angels came to visit Abram, and his descendant Joseph. All in all, this indicates that John has a most important role to play in the unfolding of the divine plan; the subtle genius of Luke is that, by making John so important, he double-underscores the even greater significance of Jesus. After all, if God went to all this trouble about John, and John is just the herald, then well boy howdy Jesus must really be important. So Luke’s tale provides a double-whammy, kills two birds with one stone, and all those other two-for-one clichés. This is quite an accomplishment.

When discussing the messenger, Gabriel, sent to Zacharias, we mentioned the parallel to Matthew. He, too, had an angel reveal to Joseph the identity and the provenance of the child in Mary’s womb. This messenger returns, this time with a name. This is the first time in the NT that an angel is named. Michael appeared in Daniel, which would be the first canonical naming of an angel. It is interesting to note that 1 Enoch mentions Gabriel and six others; the date of 1 Enoch is the source of much speculation; most often it seems like it’s put in either of the first centuries, whether before or during the Common Era. This makes it possible, or even likely, that Luke got the name from 1 Enoch, if not directly, then indirectly because this angelology was in circulation in the time that Luke was writing. Did Matthew not name his angel because he wasn’t aware of 1 Enoch, or that angels were being given names? That strikes me as a very interesting question, one that could have some bearing on the date of 1 Enoch, pushing it later, rather than earlier. The other aspect of this is where did Matthew and Luke write? If Matthew wrote in Antioch, and Luke wrote in Rome, how is it that Luke (seemingly) knew about Enoch but Matthew didn’t? The point of all of this is that, once again, Luke is expanding on a theme introduced by Matthew. He doesn’t repeat Matthew, but he takes the basic concept, uses it, and enlarges the story.

Along with that, of course, is the idea of the virgin birth. As mentioned, this theme is found only in Matthew and Luke. It wasn’t part of the overall tradition, because it doesn’t show up anywhere else. Nor is it considered part of Q, largely because there is no single point of contact between the two gospels. And yet, there it is, along with the messenger of God and (spoiler alert!) Bethlehem. But we’ll get to that shortly.

It would be remiss not to say something about the Annunciation. Except I have no idea what to say about it. It’s another way that Luke expands on Matthew, although the announcement comes to Mary, and not to Joseph. This may be significant. But enough for now. On to Chapter Two.

Update: A possible explanation for the Annunciation has just occurred to me. Recall that, in Matthew, Joseph was not aware of the conception of Jesus by the sacred breath. The messenger had to come and tell Joseph so that he wouldn’t divorce Mary for carrying the child of another man. This way, that bit of awkwardness is eliminated; we all know going in that Jesus was of divine origin, and so Joseph has no need to contemplate divorce.

Summary Matthew Chapter 27

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

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

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

So why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew Chapter 27:11-26

Here we begin the trial before Pilate. Having provided my thoughts on the book in a separate entry, I won’t go over it again. At this point, suffice it to say that it was not terribly useful, and will play a decidedly minor role in the commentary on this section. Alas, I’d hoped for more.

11 Ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἐστάθη ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ ἡγεμόνος: καὶ ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτὸν ὁ ἡγεμὼν λέγων, Σὺ εἶ ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἔφη, Σὺ λέγεις.

Jesus was stood before the leader. And the governor asked him, saying, “Are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus replied, “You say (so)”.

Does the appearance of this question seem abrupt to anyone? I realize that the Messiah was associated in Jewish tradition with the kingship; but did Pilate realize this? A certain discontinuity does exist here, and this (like most things) has implications. When being tried before the chief priests, Jesus “confessed” that he was the Messiah. This word would have been meaningless to the Romans; or the implications of the word, at least, since being the ‘anointed’ is pretty vague. So, are we to assume that the chief priests told Pilate that Jesus claimed to be the king of the Jews? We kind of have to assume that; there really is no other way for Pilate to get that information.

I need to pause here to emphasize just how strongly a man like Pilate despised subject peoples. This was during the reign of Tiberius, who was next in succession after Augustus, who established the imperial form of government, At this point, government was still largely in the hands of the old families who could trace prominent ancestors back for centuries. Tiberius was of the gens Claudius, and had produced its first consul in 495 BCE, just over a dozen years after the republic was founded. The Romans had become masters of the world only relatively recently; to their minds, their traditions and their heritage and their virtues were unmatched in the world. The mos maiorum, the ways of the ancestors were superior to any and all. Pilate, although belonging to the Equites, the level below the consular and senatorial families, would have shared this cultural arrogance. To Pilate, a subject people like the Jews–or anyone else, Greeks excepted–were fully beneath notice. A provincial like Jesus would have been a figure of contempt; the idea that Pilate would have understood anything about Judaism is just not credible. We are talking about levels of cultural chauvinism that are difficult to imagine in today’s world, and the First Century would have been the height of Roman arrogance. The Empire was still relatively new, the absorption of different peoples still rudimentary. And the Romans came to their chauvinism as the victors of many people over many centuries It was truly bred in the bone.

So the point is, if anything like this had occurred, it would have been necessary for the chief priests to feed it to Pilate. And that makes sense, within the confines of the story. It is consistent with the idea that the chief priests were trying to sell Pilate on the idea that Jesus was a political danger. Did anything like this occur? Probably not. I really and truly doubt that Jesus was important enough to warrant a personal trial in front of Pilate. This is especially true given there is no support in any source to indicate that there were troubles surrounding Jesus. Josephus talks about John, and the headache he was for Herod Antipas, and Josephus talks about unrest in Galilee and Judea, and Josephus (supposedly) talks about Jesus. But he never mentions Jesus in connexion with either of the other two topics. Why not? The simplest answer, of course, is that Jesus was not particularly involved in any sort of general agitation, nor was his connexion to John all that strong.

Given this, can we finally put aside the idea that the early Christians were embarrassed by Jesus’ ties to John. They weren’t. They played up the connexion, John’s role expanding as time went on. Yes, the evangelist John eliminates the actual baptism, but he more than compensates by adding a second interaction between Jesus and John. True embarrassment would have resulted in the complete elimination of the Baptist by Matthew and/or Luke, and certainly by the time John wrote.

But the point connected to this verse is that it’s most likely unhistorical. Which means that pretty much everything that follows is unhistorical.

11 Iesus autem stetit ante praesidem; et interrogavit eum praeses dicens: “ Tu es Rex Iudaeorum? ”. Dixit autem Iesus: “Tu dicis”.

12 καὶ ἐν τῷ κατηγορεῖσθαι αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀρχιερέων καὶ πρεσβυτέρων οὐδὲν ἀπεκρίνατο.

And in the to accuse him by the high priests and elders he did not rebut anything.

Didn’t want to pause here, but a couple of notes on the grammar. “The to accuse” is a verb in Greek, an infinitive. This use of an infinitive in the place of what would be a gerund, or even a noun (the accusing; the accusation) in English is fairly common in Greek. It just handles the same situation differently. And the “he did not rebut anything”. The verb specifically means to “offer contrary evidence”, but that’s hard to work into a transitive form in English. Here, it’s literally “he did not counter-argue nothing”. That won’t do in English.

12 Et cum accusaretur a principibus sacerdotum et senioribus, nihil respondit.

13 τότε λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Οὐκ ἀκούεις πόσα σου καταμαρτυροῦσιν;

14 καὶ οὐκ ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ πρὸς οὐδὲ ἓν ῥῆμα, ὥστε θαυμάζειν τὸν ἡγεμόνα λίαν.

Then Pilate said to him, “Did you not hear how much they have provided witness against you?” (14) And he (Jesus) did not respond to him (Pilate), not one thing spoken. In this way the Leader marveled very much. 

I’m reading another book called The Backgrounds of Early Christianity (note the plural). In it, the author says that “hegemon”, here translated as “leader” was the proper Greek translation of the Latin equivalent. That makes sense, but the author’s background is in Biblical Studies, so I’m not entirely convinced. If I had come across it in Josephus, let’s say, I’d give it more credibility. “NT Greek” is such a closed and self-inferential subset of Greek studies that I don’t find them to have a lot of credibility. It’s too much like a club where the members all agree to do certain things that people outside the club would find bizarre. Sort of like wearing funny hats to go to a lodge meeting.

Probably more important is that Jesus was silent. Why did Jesus not respond? Well, even if he did, we couldn’t depend on its accuracy. Who was there to tell the later followers of Jesus what transpired? Or, more likely, Jesus said nothing to Pilate because he never appeared before Pilate.

13 Tunc dicit illi Pilatus: “ Non audis quanta adversum te dicant testimonia?”.

14 Et non respondit ei ad ullum verbum, ita ut miraretur praeses vehementer.

15 Κατὰ δὲ ἑορτὴν εἰώθει ὁ ἡγεμὼν ἀπολύειν ἕνα τῷ ὄχλῳ δέσμιον ὃν ἤθελον.

(15) And upon the feast the governor used to release one of the prisoners to the crowd, which they wanted.

Let’s stop right here. Absolutely the only place this custom is attested is right here in the gospels. There is absolutely no evidence for it anywhere else, in any source, whether Latin, Greek, or Aramaic. Nowhere. Nothing. Never. Given this absolute lack of corroborating evidence, it’s safe to say we should be highly skeptical about its authenticity. Make that extremely skeptical. And notice that the Greek says the governor was accustomed, was wont to do this. This means it happened more than once; it was not a one-off sort of thing. This means that there is more likelihood that it would have been mentioned by someone, somewhere, at some time. Since, despite the fact that there were multiple iterations of this practice, we still don’t have any evidence for it, we can, I believe, safely assume that this whole episode is made up from whole cloth.

And that, in turn, has additional ramifications. We have a fictitious custom tacked on to what is probably a fictitious trial. That so much of this is made up should make one consider that the cause of the trial, the reason for Jesus’ execution may not withstand historical scrutiny. I’ve now read at least two books by Crossan in which he avers that the cleansing of the Temple was the reason behind Jesus’ arrest based on charges trumped-up by the Jewish authorities because they feared that Jesus was offering an alternative to Temple ritual. Perhaps he was. But so were the Essenes. And we honestly don’t know exactly what Jesus’ teachings really were. I believe that the Sermon on the Mount was not among them. The point is that the fictions pile upon fictions, creating quite the house of cards that topples with even the slightest historical scrutiny.

15 Per diem autem sollemnem consueverat praeses dimittere turbae unum vinctum, quem voluissent.

16 εἶχον δὲ τότε δέσμιον ἐπίσημον λεγόμενον [Ἰησοῦν] Βαραββᾶν.

17 συνηγμένων οὖν αὐτῶν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Τίνα θέλετε ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν, [Ἰησοῦν τὸν] Βαραββᾶν ἢ Ἰησοῦν τὸν λεγόμενον Χριστόν;

18 ᾔδει γὰρ ὅτι διὰ φθόνον παρέδωκαν αὐτόν.

They had imprisoned then someone notable called [Jesus] Barabbas. (17)  Thus those of his having gathered, Pilate asked to them, “Whom do you wish I release to you, [Jesus the ] Barabbas, or Jesus called the Christ?” (18) For he knew that through jealousy they had handed him over. 

Assuming, with justice, that the story and character of Barabbas is fictional, we must then ask why it was created? It would seem to be obvious that the point is to compare and contrast the two men, which comparison is even more pointed since the other’s name was also Jesus–although that is more likely a later insertion, based on the textual evidence. A later copyist sought to heighten the drama and the distinction between the two by giving them the same name. We’ll get to the contrast a bit more in the next few verses.

Rather, let’s deal with the last sentence: the high priests handed Jesus over from jealousy. Or was it malice? Either way, this is an echo from Mark, so it goes to the foundation of the story. So let’s think about this. The word, << phthonos >>, is used by both Mark and Matthew. While at root the word means “malice”, in Greek tragedy, it is the << φθόνος >> of the gods, the jealousy of preserving their prerogatives,  that causes them to send retribution upon a mortal for overstepping his place; however, the word is mostly used for “normal” jealousy or envy as well. It is what we feel for another’s riches, or another’s success when we’re not exactly happy for them. I think a legitimate question to ask is whether Mark understood the literary implications of the word. How widely were the concepts of Greek tragedy disseminated throughout the culture? By using the word, did the evangelist–or the creator of the Passion Narrative, or the scribe who translated Mark into Greek–wish, consciously or not, to evoke the idea of tragedy? It needs to be said that Jesus does not fit the mold of the tragic hero: he is not blind to his tragic flaw, he does not overstep his human role and attempt to usurp the role of the gods.

Or does he? Boy howdy, here’s a thesis for some enterprising and aspiring Ph.D. scholar: The Passion Story as Greek tragedy. 

OK, coming back to earth, let’s be a bit more circumspect about this. Otherwise, it’s another of those moments when I take a flight of fancy based pretty much on nothing. Here, it’s a single word. That would be a very, very subtle evocation on the part of the author.

So let’s reel this in a bit and ask what the author meant by the word. It seems pretty obvious that, on a very human level, this cuts to the root of the high priests’ attitude towards Jesus: they felt he was horning in on their territory, and they didn’t like it. That’s pretty much the textbook definition of jealousy: losing what you have to someone else. As such, it goes along with the theme of the story. But there are two things to consider. First, how in the world would Pilate know this? Did his sources on the street keep him informed? Did Pilate even know who Jesus was? The short answer to that is, it’s doubtful. According to the narrative, Jesus has been in the city since Sunday; it’s now Friday. Has Jesus raised that much of a ruckus that he’s come to Pilate’s attention? Well, there was the procession into Jerusalem, but a close reading of Mark’s version of that event reveals Jesus coming into town surrounded by a group of followers that seemed to draw scant attention from anyone else. Aware of this low-key description, Matthew expands upon it, having children chanting “Hosanna” in the Temple precinct. But even there, it almost seems like the high priests are taking notice of Jesus for the first time. Then there is the “cleansing” of the Temple. At the very most, it would have been a minor occurrence, perhaps involving a single table, a nuisance rather than a threat. Anything larger would have likely resulted in Jesus’ immediate arrest. And the story, told in both Mark and Matthew, that he returned to the Temple the next day and conversed with Temple priests really undercuts any suggestion that he caused a significant disturbance the day before.

In other words, there’s very little for the high priests to be jealous about. Then, of course, there’s the second problem with the suggestion that Pilate understood the high priests’ motives: this trial probably did not happen. Pilate did not personally try every two-bit criminal who got himself arrested and crucified. Jesus very obviously committed no major crime; even knocking over a money-changer’s table would not cross that bar. Given that, why is Jesus being tried by Pilate? Answer, he’s not. This event did not happen.

16 Habebant autem tunc vinctum insignem, qui dicebatur Barabbas.

17 Congregatis ergo illis dixit Pilatus: “ Quem vultis dimittam vobis: Barabbam an Iesum, qui dicitur Christus? ”.

18 Sciebat enim quod per invidiam tradidissent eum.

19 Καθημένου δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ τοῦ βήματος ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς αὐτὸν ἡ γυνὴ αὐτοῦ λέγουσα, Μηδὲν σοὶ καὶ τῷ δικαίῳ ἐκείνῳ, πολλὰ γὰρ ἔπαθον σήμερον κατ’ ὄναρ δι’ αὐτόν.

20 Οἱ δὲ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι ἔπεισαν τοὺς ὄχλους ἵνα αἰτήσωνται τὸν Βαραββᾶν τὸνδὲ Ἰησοῦν ἀπολέσωσιν.

While seated on the judgement seat, his wife sent to him, saying, “Do not have anything (to do) with this just man, for many signs I have felt during a dream on his account”. (20) The high priests and the scribes persuaded the crown in order to cause this Jesus Barabbas to be released.

Here, I think, is where we come to the crux (no pun intended) of the matter. First, we have Pilate’s wife dreaming about Jesus, telling Pilate to have nothing to do with this just man. This is an addition to Mark’s story. And it’s addition is, I think, very telling. The Greeks and Romans took dreams very seriously. The Iliad says: << kai gar t’oner ek dios estin >> “For a dream, too, is from Zeus”. There are stories in the HS about dreams: the dream of pharaoh interpreted by Joseph, the dream of Nebuchadnezzar interpreted by Daniel, and I think Saul had a dream, too? But regardless, they dream was much more of a Graeco-Roman thing, much more tightly intertwined with the pagan culture than it was in Jewish culture. The gods visited ordinary people in a way that God did not. For example, medical shrines, like that of Asclepius, sort of the ancient version of Lourdes, drew pilgrims from far away. The healing process was to sleep in the temple compound until the god sent a dream to tell the supplicant of the necessary ritual needed to effect a cure.

The point is, Matthew’s insertion of this story was intended, I believe, to convince a pagan audience. It would have carried more weight with pagans than it would have with Jews. In effect, Matthew is telling his audience that some god was sending verification that Jesus was innocent. Jews could have understood this as well; there’s nothing exclusive about the idea, but it would have had more resonance, IMO, among pagans who were used to this sort of thing.

Then there’s the next verse, in which the crowd is incited to ask for Barabbas. First, why is there a crowd at all? It’s early morning on the first day of Passover. Why are Jews assembled in front of Pilate’s residence? This may be legitimate, but I’ve never heard an explanation for this. It’s especially odd considering that it’s early in the morning. Were they seeking to petition Pilate? To demonstrate to persuade Pilate to take some action or other? This seems like another of those many instances where some detail, or set of circumstances that furthers the action/plot is just asserted and never explained. And these sorts of details are rarely (if ever) questioned by any of the scholars who are supposedly considering the historicity of Jesus and/or the gospels. To his credit, Crossan does address this, at least indirectly. He dismisses the entire episode of Barabbas, which thereby eliminates the crowd shouting “Crucify him!”. The point of this couplet is very simple and very straightforward: the idea is to remove the guilt from Pilate and place it squarely on the Jewish authorities, if not exactly the Jews themselves. That will come shortly.

19 Sedente autem illo pro tribunali, misit ad illum uxor eius dicens: “Nihil tibi et iusto illi. Multa enim passa sum hodie per visum propter eum”.

20 Principes autem sacerdotum et seniores persuaserunt turbis, ut peterent Barabbam, Iesum vero perderent.

21 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ ἡγεμὼν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Τίνα θέλετε ἀπὸ τῶν δύο ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν; οἱ δὲ εἶπαν, Τὸν Βαραββᾶν.

22 λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Τί οὖν ποιήσω Ἰησοῦν τὸν λεγόμενον Χριστόν; λέγουσιν πάντες, Σταυρωθήτω.

23 ὁ δὲ ἔφη, Τί γὰρ κακὸν ἐποίησεν; οἱ δὲ περισσῶς ἔκραζον λέγοντες, Σταυρωθήτω.

24 ἰδὼν δὲ ὁ Πιλᾶτος ὅτι οὐδὲν ὠφελεῖ ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον θόρυβος γίνεται, λαβὼν ὕδωρ ἀπενίψατο τὰς χεῖρας ἀπέναντι τοῦ ὄχλου, λέγων, Ἀθῷός εἰμι ἀπὸ τοῦ αἵματος τούτου: ὑμεῖς ὄψεσθε.

25 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς πᾶς ὁ λαὸς εἶπεν, Τὸ αἷμα αὐτοῦ ἐφ’ ἡμᾶς καὶ ἐπὶ τὰ τέκνα ἡμῶν.

26 τότε ἀπέλυσεν αὐτοῖς τὸν Βαραββᾶν, τὸν δὲ Ἰησοῦν φραγελλώσας παρέδωκεν ἵνα σταυρωθῇ.

Answering, the governor said to them, “Whom from the two do you wish I release to you?” They said, “Barabbas!” (22) Pilate said to them, “What therefore shall I do to Jesus called the Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!”  (23) And he said, “For what has he done (that is) bad?” They shouted more, saying “Let him be crucified!” (24) Pilate, seeing that he profited nothing, but more tumult became, taking water he washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am guiltless from the blood of him; you observe this for yourselves”. (25) And responded the entire people, “The blood of him upon us and upon the children of us!” (26) Then he released to them Barabbas, in contrast Jesus having been scourged he handed him over that he might be crucified.

Two things, one major, one fairly minor. The fairly minor one first. The last sentence is interesting. “Handed him over that he might be crucified”. First, the idea of “handing him over” is completely disingenuous. Pilate handed Jesus to no one. The Romans performed the crucifixion; it was Pilate’s soldiers who carried out the sentence. Jesus was not ‘handed over’. The word is the same that is used of Judas when Judas “handed Jesus over”. Except there, it is very often translated as “betrayed”. So this is a neat rhetorical trick whereby the author can put Pilate at a remove from responsibility. Of course, Pilate is the one who is responsible. It was his order, carried out by his soldiers.

But that is pretty much inconsequential compared to the line before: his blood on us and our children”. This is possibly the ugliest line in the entire NT. This is the Jews as Christ-killers, his blood on their hands and those of their children. Blood guilt, in perpetuity. To make things more emphatic, to make them worse, he changes what he calls those doing the shouting. Before, the were “the crowd”. Now, suddenly, they are “laos”, which I’ve translated as “people”. In The Persians, Aeschylus uses the word to mean, “all who are called by one name”; as examples, he cites the Lydians and the Phrygians. The term is a bit looser than “ethnos”, which has more of a unitary sense to it, and is probably closer to our sense of “a people” than “laos” is. However, given the use of Aeschylus, this is more than “a bunch of people”, which in English would be more or less synonymous with “crowd”.

The point here is that Matthew has placed collective guilt on Jews and their children. While this formulation is not as explicit as it will be in John, who speaks of “the Jews”, it’s the rhetorical and functional equivalent of that expression. “Laos” doesn’t do it, but adding “our children” certainly does. That converts it at least to the guilt of a religion, but given the interconnexion of religion and nationality with the Jews, this is, in essense, an ethnic guilt, and one that has had a long and ugly history in the Christian community.

There is a wrinkle to this that receives no attention. Since it is simply accepted that Matthew was a Jew, no one discusses this in terms of Matthew’s attitude towards Jews. Simply put, there is no discussion about why Matthew, a Jew, would put such blood-guilt on his own people. For me, there is no conflict in this because I believe Matthew was a pagan rather than a Jew. Do I believe this proves my point? No, it doesn’t prove the point; what it does do, I believe, is show that my point is at least worth serious consideration. This amounts to a very harsh condemnation of Jews everywhere and always. As a Jew, Matthew would most likely have been condemning members of his own family. Could he have turned so thoroughly against his relatives, his friends, his entire upbringing and heritage? Sure. He wouldn’t have been the first to do this, and he certainly hasn’t been the last. Rather, it’s the probability game: wouldn’t it be more likely for such a harsh condemnation to come from an outsider, rather than from a co-religionist? I find this pretty convincing, but only when added to the many other times we’ve had this discussion, such as the idea of the dream of Pilate’s wife. That is two clues within a very short space of text. So I do believe the idea cannot be dismissed out of hand, and that it deserves serious consideration. 

21 Respondens autem praeses ait illis: “Quem vultis vobis de duobus dimittam?”. At illi dixerunt: “ Barabbam!”.

22 Dicit illis Pilatus: “Quid igitur faciam de Iesu, qui dicitur Christus? ”. Dicunt omnes: “ Crucifigatur!”.

23 Ait autem: “Quid enim mali fecit? ”. At illi magis clamabant dicentes: “ Crucifigatur!”.

24 Videns autem Pilatus quia nihil proficeret, sed magis tumultus fieret, accepta aqua, lavit manus coram turba dicens: “Innocens ego sum a sanguine hoc; vos videritis!”.

25 Et respondens universus populus dixit: “Sanguis eius super nos et super filios nostros”.

26 Tunc dimisit illis Barabbam; Iesum autem flagellatum tradidit, ut crucifigeretur.

John Dominic Crossan: “Who Killed Jesus?”

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of the book Who Killed Jesus?, by prominent NT scholar JD Crossan. Professor Crossan (emeritus) is an eminent figure in biblical scholarship, with a number of highly-regarded books to his credit. I’ve read a couple of others by him, but exactly which ones I no longer recall. Since the book currently under discussion deals with the subject of, and comes at exactly the point in the narrative where we are–the Passion Narrative–I’ve held off forging ahead with my translation and comment while I read the book, the idea being to see if there were interesting and useful points that could inform and enlighten my understanding  and the discussion of the topic. But first, this is not a review of the book in any standard sense, for several reasons. First, the book is twenty years old, so a review is rather beside the point at this time. Second, the purpose of reading the book was to see if the scholarly argument provided further insight into the topic, not whether the book is worth reading. Finally, part–a large part–of the purpose of the book is  set out in the subtitle: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of The Death Of Jesus.  This is a worthy and necessary goal, but not one that is fundamental to our purposes here. This topic does overlap with our research, since it helps to provide possible motivation for why the authors of the gospels wrote what they did and in the way they did.

Having glanced at the Amazon review section for the work, it seems that “John D. Crossan is generally acknowledged to be the premier historical Jesus scholar in the world”. That is  a very weighty designation. Given this title, one should approach a confrontation with Crossan as one would approach the possibility of fisticuffs with the UFC champion of the world: she is the best; who the heck are you? Would you challenge LeBron James to a game of one-on-one? Personally, I would not challenge Rhonda Rousey, even though she’s no longer the champion, nor would I be so rash as to take on King James. Crossan? Absolutely. And why? Because he is/was a professor of Religious Studies, but he is writing history. That is to say, he’s on my turf; a pro athlete is great at whatever game he or she plays, but that does not mean they can play another game equally well, or even competently. Some pro athletes are also good golfers; most are not. (I am certainly not, but that’s irrelevant.)

One problem with this book, and pretty much every book I’ve ever read on the subject of the Historical Jesus is that these books are not written by historians. They are written by biblical, or religious studies people. They may know their NT textual analyses, but can they play golf? The other problem is that most of these books were written by people who, if not practicing Christians, were raised as such, and they approach the topic of historicity based on study of the Bible, and not study of history. Oh, they’ve read Tacitus and Josephus–at least, I’m sure, the relevant sections–but they’ve never studied Tacitus, or history in general, as an historian would study the text. These two problems–or, perhaps they are really only different facets of the same problem–is that their perspective is off; they never truly engage the topic as historians should. This is why all the books I’ve read by religious studies people sort of blur together. They have all come at the subject with the same approach, and so they, ultimately, make the same case. Oh, they may regard different stories as historical or non-historical for sound and valid and good reasons, but they never get themselves out of that single approach that largely predetermines their outcome: much of the NT is historically accurate.

The key aspect of this approach, this method that is unsound, is that they believe that all of the writers of the NT, and of at least some of they apocryphal texts, are writing to illumine and preserve a single, unitary, and ultimately factual account of the life and death of Jesus. That is, the scholars all assume that, ultimately, all of the evangelists and the authors of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter, are telling exactly the same story. And they never, ever challenge, even in their own minds, this assumption. I would hazard to guess that most–if not quite all–are fundamentally unaware that they are making this assumption. It’s the classic “buried assumption”: something that affects nearly everything, but is never acknowledged because almost no one realizes it’s there. This assumption, I would argue, is the direct result of coming into the topic from a background of biblical or textual or literary analysis, and not from a background in history.

There is a corollary to this assumption: it leads to positing the existence of shadowy texts for which there is not a shred of evidence, and then taking it as a given that these hypothetical texts did, in fact, exist. Of course, Q is the most famous, and the most pernicious, example of this. In Crossan’s book, we come across another, called The Cross Gospel. This is a text of the Passion Narrative that was put to paper in the 50s, or about the time that Q was. This narrative them became the basis for the four canonical gospels and, according to Crossan, the Gospel of Peter. The evidence for these texts is completely literary, and completely dependent on being able to get into the mind of the evangelist whose work is considered. This leads to a lot of, “well Mark really means”, and “Luke would never mess with a masterpiece like the Sermon on the Mount”, and “the Matthew changed Mark because it’s consistent with Matthew’s overall intention”, and other such things. This is what happens, I suspect, when living in a world of textual and literary analysis. I’ve studied enough literature qua literature to know how the process works, even if I was never very good at it.

With those two–or one-point-five–points, perhaps we can encapsulate the whole of Crossan’s case, just as one can deduce Hercules from just his foot*. The fatal flaw in Crossan’s case comes very early in the work, within the first 30 pages, as he’s setting out the evidence. He admits that the Synoptics are all dependent on Mark for their passion narrative. Indeed, he concedes that John’s passion narrative is based, largely, on Mark. As such, Matthew, Luke, & John are dependent sources; they cannot be assessed historically as anything but an appendage to Mark. More or less. That’s a bit strong, but in historical research, and “dependent” has a fairly specific, perhaps technical meaning. The most significant aspect of this is that one cannot take a variation in the dependent source as more historical than what the original source said. This simply means that if Matthew contradicts Mark on a point of fact, we should take Mark’s words as more likely to be accurate. Unless there is strong indication that Matthew also had access to a second source that was not Mark. Hence, Q becomes very, very handy, and the willingness to jettison Q turns into obstinance .

But, Crossan is not content to let John rest there. Noticing how different John’s treatment of the miracles of Jesus are, he goes on to posit that John is independent of Mark on these miracle stories. Since much of my case depends (pun?) on this assumption, or assertion, of Crossan, we need to be very clear on why this is a problem. To be blunt, I do not know, exactly, what Crossan means by “for me, (John) is independent of the Synoptics for the miracles and sayings of Jesus”. As mentioned, for historical studies, “in/dependent” has a fairly specific–almost to the point of technical– meaning. I do not know if Crossan understands and uses the word in this historian’s sense. If he simply means that John has a different take on the miracles and sayings, I don’t have a problem with that–in fact I’d agree with that–but I would not, could not accept the description of this as an “independent” source. From the historian’s perspective, an source that is truly independent is one that has access to knowledge that the first source does not. Given Q, Matthew becomes an independent source for the sayings of Jesus. So the question becomes, is Crossan saying that John had access to a second, now lost, collection of the sayings of Jesus that dated back prior to Mark, and that represented a tradition that was unaware of Mark, and of which Mark was unaware?

That is the essence of Q: the author(s) of Q were unaware of Mark, and Mark was unaware of Q. Is Crossan saying that John also had his own source? Reading this from the perspective of an historian, that is what I understand by him saying “John was independent of the Synoptics”. Is that what he means? If so, then the entire case becomes untenable because he provides no evidence that such a source existed, that it was independent of Mark, and that John was the sole evangelist (or epistle writer) aware of this source. Contrariwise, if that is not what Crossan means, then what he’s saying is that John (or someone) made stuff up. In which case, there is no historical validity in taking John as in any way independent of the Synoptics. People have been making stuff up about Ronald Reagan for a couple of decades now; that doesn’t mean that they can be used as historical arguments. Amity Shlaes argues that FDR had a time machine because the policies he implemented were able to cause the Great Depression after he took office in 1933, when, in fact, it started in 1930 (or thereabouts; the point is, it was several years before FDR took office). They’ve made this stuff up; it is not necessary to present an argument against these positions in an argument about history because they are not based on fact. In the same way, I don’t have to account for unicorns in the evolution of the modern horse.

Crossan then compounds this error, and then magnifies it. He freely admits that Gospel Peter (GPtr) is an independent source for the Passion Narrative. He claims that GPtr influenced the Synoptic gospel writers by influencing Mark. What’s more interesting is that he asserts this after admitting that there is no evidence for the GPtr before the end of the Second Century, at least a century after Mark wrote. How is this possible? It’s possible because GPtr retained traces, or even sections of something called the Cross Gospel. Apparently, he realized that the idea of arguing that this independent tradition survived, uninfluenced by the mainstream traditions for 150 (approx) years was a fool’s errand, so he credited it with being incorporated into Mark, and so the other three canonical gospels. I am not sure, exactly, what this encompasses or implies, or what purpose it serves. Yes, it pushes the beginning of the Passion Narrative back into the 50s, but so what? That’s still a generation after Jesus’ death. So late a date is more apt to produce legend than it is to record fact. It’s enough of a time lapse that real memories have been supplemented–or supplanted–by what people want to remember. But it remains that, if it influenced Mark, and so the other gospels, it’s no longer an independent source. Or rather, Mark is no longer independent. The net result is that we still have only one real source for the Passion Narrative, whether it started with Mark, or with GPtr. Crossan is trying to have it both ways, but the math just doesn’t work out. It’s still 1 + 0 = 1, whether the 1 is the Cross Gospel (so-called) or Mark.

Now, of course Mark–probably–had earlier material available to him. It seems like he must have. But we have no evidence that Paul was aware of any such available evidence, that he had any knowledge of a Passion Narrative. As such, there is no reason to believe that such a narrative existed. It’s certainly possible, and maybe there’s a 25% probability that such a story existed, but neither of those are proof. This, of course, is the argument from silence, and that is a dangerous bit of reasoning when applied to the ancient world, when there is so much evidence that is missing because it never existed. But the fact remains that our only written source from the 50s and into the 60s is Paul, and he provides no hints about the causes of Jesus’ death, no explanation of who ordered the execution–because it was no doubt carried out by the Romans–or why this happened.

Crossan is fully convinced that something like the cleansing of the Temple really did happen, and tries to tie Jesus into John’s programme of individual repentance divorced from the Temple structure, which in turn threatened the Temple structure, which is what caused the Jewish authorities to get nervous and connive for Jesus’ execution in the same way that Herod Antipas executed the Baptist. That is one serious causal chain of events. But we have no evidence for any of this. Josephus supposedly talks about Jesus, but he never, ever connects him to John. Really, Josephus short paragraph on Jesus does no more than repeat the gospel story: that the best men of the Jews had Jesus put to death. But this was written in the 9os, long after the orthodox story of the gospels had become The Gospel account. Josephus seems completely unaware of who these “best men” among the Jews were, even though he is well aware of Caiaphas and mentions him in other contexts. It’s this sort of selective use of Josephus that makes me say that biblical scholars, no doubt, have read Tacitus or Josephus, but they’ve never studied it and they may have only read the few paragraphs in question without understanding Josephus as an historian.

What are we left with? A bunch of stories that probably don’t date back before the 60s, if they are that early. There were, without doubt, a number of traditions about Jesus. While discussing Mark, I used the analogy of a weaver, taking many individual threads and weaving them into a whole cloth. Most of these threads were probably oral, stories and traditions. Most likely after that, what was recorded by Mark became dominant, what was not faded into the background and then faded away. In the meantime, other traditions sprang up, ones that resulted in the Sermon on the Mount; the social consciousness of many of these teachings may point to an origin with James the Just and the Jerusalem Assembly, but that is still a suspicion, or a perhaps a working hypothesis. It has not been solidified with a real argument.

Notice what I said up there: other traditions sprang up. We–and perhaps Professor Crossan in particular–need to bear constantly in mind that revelation did not end with John’s Apocalypse (which was probably not even the latest of the books of the NT). Revelation continued. We have an array of Gospels and Acts and stories attributed to all sorts of people: Peter, Pilate, and even Judas Iscariot. Elaine Pagels documented this decades ago in her Gnostic Gospels. This was why the Church eventually had to set which works were canonical, and which weren’t. The Gospel of Peter falls into this latter category. In a sense, all of these apocryphal sources present evidence that is “independent” of the canonical scripture, at least by Crossan’s use–or misuse–of the term “independent source”. No doubt you can see where this is going, even if Crossan can’t, or more likely, doesn’t want to see it. Making stuff up doesn’t make it evidence, or a viable source, or anything really useful, except to see the very broad range of interpretations that were attached to Jesus. This failure–perhaps willful–to see much of this as creative writing, couple with the way Crossan manipulates the word “independent”, dooms any argument that he can put forth.

Which takes us back to the first point I made above: that there is an assumption that all writers of Gospels and Acts that deal with Jesus or his close companions, whether they were determined to be canonical or apocryphal, set out to tell exactly the same story has had been told before, but using different evidence. This simply cannot be true. We have already seen the very significant differences between Mark and Matthew, and between the evangelists and Paul. They are telling significantly different stories. The biggest part of this goes back to the question of “Why did anyone after Mark sit down to write a new gospel?” Why indeed? The answer is simple, but, nevertheless, is often overlooked. New authors write new gospels because they believe that they have something new to say. That is, they either have new or different evidence or traditions to draw upon, or they have a different understanding of Jesus or the time after his death. In other words, they are writing to correct some aspect that they feel is missing, incomplete, or just plain wrong. We have to keep going back to the Arthur legend for our analogy: new characters were added as time passed, so that, by the time of Malory, there were dozens of new faces sitting around the Round Table. Even the Greek myths are disconcertingly unstable. The details and they understanding changed. Euripides did not tell the same stories as Hesiod had, half a millennium earlier. The difference is that we understand Arthur and Greek myth as literary creations, but we treat the NT as essentially fixed and singular and unitary. In fact, the variation in Greek myth can disconcert a modern neophyte reader because modern Christian neophyte readers approaches Greek myth as they approach the Bible and NT: as a single, unitary, and fixed account of Jesus. The author of the Gospel of Peter is not necessarily, or at all, interested in telling the same story as Mark or Matthew. If he had been, why did he even bother to write at all?

Just to be clear, Crossan believes that GPtr is early and has an elaborate argument for the date. In fact, it is so elaborate that he believes he can date it to a range of less than five years. If this were a proper scholarly paper, I  would set out his case and then demolish it. But this is a blog post. Suffice it to say that he insists that the progression towards anti-Judaism indicates a later date. John is the most anti-Judaic, so his gospel is the latest. In Crossan’s judgement, GPtr is the least anti-Judaic, so it must be the earliest. Q.E.D. Case closed. To put it mildly, this assumed progression is hardly an indicator set in stone. Yes, there does seem to be a progression to John, except that Luke is somehow less anti-Judaic than Matthew. So maybe this doesn’t work like Carbon-14 dating, where the progress is steady and inexorable. Bear in mind that the fragment that we have of GPtr is fairly small, so it’s impossible to assess the overall attitude of the author to Jews. Even if it were possible, there could be a myriad of reasons why someone in the late Second Century chose to depict the villains as the Jewish authorities while exonerating the Jewish people. The most obvious is that the author wanted to explain why there were still Jews. Well, it was all the fault of the rascally high priests and Herod (!) This limits the damage to Jesus’ reputation by keeping the number of doubters as small as possible. It’s pretty simple, after all, since by the end of the Second Century, the Jews were no longer the primary enemy; the Church was more concerned with explaining itself to pagans than it was to Jews. The Jews were no longer much of a threat, so it was easy to pull back on the vitriol against them. Oh, and yes, Herod. In the GPtr, the trial is conducted before Herod, and Herod and the high priests and Pilate and a bunch of Romans all witness the Resurrection. Really, that says all we need to say about the author’s understanding of the situation in the mid-First Century.

And really, from the historical point of view, I believe that nothing written after Luke, or even Matthew, can be expected to contain previously unreleased material. Luke was aware of Paul, which indicates a coalescence of Christian thinking. After that point it’s hard to credit that any Christian anywhere, sixty years after the fact, could have possessed knowledge of things that dated back to Jesus. Indeed, it seem unlikely enough with Matthew. By the time of Luke, the story of Jesus was well-enough known that Josephus takes it as true. So we have entered into the age where the basic story was set, even if it was still possible to tinker around the edges. I suspect that very little of Acts can be taken seriously as history. That it uses the names of actual Roman officials and titles and events does not mean that the rest of it is true. A Tale of Two Cities takes place during the French Revolution, which certainly happened; however, the events of the novel are just that: events in a novel. So looking for new historical information–aside from the incidentals that all writing includes–is probably not a terribly wise or effective thing to do.

As an aside, Crossan distinguishes between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, and rightly so, I think. Anti-Judaism is more of a conflict with, and denigration of, the religion qua religion. Anti-Semitism blatant racism. So they are not exactly the same thing, but anti-Judaism did eventually lead to full-blown anti-Semitism.

There are a few other useful bits to be gleaned from the book. They will be presented in the appropriate context since this has gone on way too long!

 

* “Ex pede, Herculem“, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ex_pede_Herculem

 

Summary Matthew Chapter 26

As I see it, the main issues of this chapter involve credibility and the date. What part, if any, of this story can we believe? When was it written? What are the internal clues for either of these? To some degree, of course, these questions are pertinent for almost any chapter in any part of the NT taken at random. And the answers could almost always be “little to none”, “at least forty years after the fact”, and “maybe a few”. It’s just that, with so few theological or doctrinal issues to be discussed, these questions take on outsized proportions in this chapter. There are a few theological aspects to be considered: the symbolism of Jesus as the Pascal Lamb, the idea that Jesus prayed–fervently-that he not have to die, and the question asked by the high priests if he was the anointed. Let’s start with these; perhaps we’ll find that these aren’t so incidental after all.

The first two are already well-established in Mark. This connexion holds even though John felt it necessary to mess with the timeline so that Jesus died on the Day of Preparation–when the lambs would be killed–rather than on the first full day of Passover, after the Seder had been held. My suspicion is that this connexion can be traced back to Paul, at the very least, if not further. Paul was quite explicit about the sacrifice of Jesus. Perhaps he did not situate Jesus’ death as coincidental with the Passover festival, but from the idea of sacrifice to the idea of the Paschal Lamb is a fairly short step. This also takes us back to the question of whether Paul knew, or whether he thought it irrelevant, but that question will remain barring the discovery of some further evidence of unimpeachable provenance. That John chose to move the crucifixion forward by a day speaks to his theological outlook, and provides even more proof that the evangelists overall, and perhaps John in particular, were more concerned with Eternal Truth than they were with mere factual accuracy. In any case, the connexion between Jesus’ crucifixion and Passover was set at some point after Paul.

But when? And when were the outlines of the Passion Narrative as we have it set? My belief is that the motivation ascribing the role of Prime Movers to the high priests only makes sense after 70. We know that there was a story of Jesus being arrested after dining with his disciples; this is what Paul says, after all. Even if he did receive the story through inspiration–another term for “made it up”–he still put it out there into circulation. As an aside, we always, always have to be very conscious about this aspect of Paul’s writing. After all, he claims that Jesus appeared to him in the same way that he appeared to the others. That is pure inspiration. Paul also had a vision of being taken to the third heaven, so the man was not a stranger to the ecstatic vision, or at least flashes of insight in which the Truth conveyed was so powerful that he took it as True in a way that may have included being factually accurate.

It is, of course, possible that the last layer of causality that pointed out the high priests was added to an existing narrative, but that almost creates more problems than it solves. If not the high priests, then why was Jesus executed? That the question becomes almost impossible to answer in any meaningful way should not be surprising; it is, after all, the question we’ve been grappling with for most of this discussion. But even without historical probability, what did a narrative about the passion give as the reason before the Destruction of the Temple? If a Passion Narrative did exist before Mark, but the blame-the-high priests motive was most appropriate before 70, then what?  Who would have been first atop the list of villains from the perspective of the nascent church?

It’s a serious question, and the answer may have something to do with the “tipping point” that I’ve mentioned any number of times. If the tipping point had come, and if the authorities in the synagogues did engage in some form of systemic harassment of the communities of Jesus as Paul indicates, then it’s entirely possible that Jewish authority figures may have been the ones blamed even before Mark wrote his gospel, and even before the Jewish War. This is a major piece of conjecture, however, and it really deserves a lot of scrutiny before it can even make it to the realm of hypothesis. For the moment, let’s leave it at conjecture until we’ve had time to digest this, and to re-evaluate the preceding narrative in terms of this possibility. Does the narrative support it? Is this, for example, why we have all the stories of Jesus annoying the Pharisees? That would make sense, but we need to go a bit beyond that in our examination.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, but I do want to remind everyone. This chapter contains the story of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet with the expensive unguent. The point is that she is not identified as Mary Magdalene, neither here nor in any of the gospels. In fact, John is the only one to name the woman, and he identifies her as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, with whom Jesus has several interactions. And yet, despite her anonymity in the synoptic gospels, “everyone knows” that this anointing was done by Mary Magdalene. In the same way, “everyone knows” that she was a prostitute, even though this is nowhere stated. It’s just a great example of the substitution of later tradition for scriptural evidence. This is why it’s so very important to recognize this when we see it. This was the sort of analysis that the Protestants insisted upon, and why they got rid of the idea of Purgatory; it makes sense–why else do we need to pray for the dead?–but there’s nothing in scripture to support it. I do not know whether any Protestant churches identify the woman in this story as Mary Magdalene, or whether she is considered a prostitute in non-Catholic sermons. Or is it the Protestants who consider her a prostitute?

This story of the woman anointing Jesus has one ring of truth to it. As he often is in Mark, Jesus is a bit surly with his followers, and Matthew continues with that. Of course, this assumes that an angry Jesus is a factually-accurate Jesus. The idea is that this is “embarrassing”, because the “authentic” Jesus is the kind, gentle Jesus of the Beatitudes. And honestly, I think there is something to that. Jesus the Wonder-Worker is not necessarily the magnanimous and sweet-natured individual envisioned as the Lamb of God. This is a rare instance in Matthew where that older, less pleasant Jesus with the sharper edges breaks through. Then we should ask why this was retained, since it portrays Jesus in a not-entirely-favourable light. But this could be said about many of the stories that Matthew carries over from Mark. Offhand, the most likely reason that Matthew retained so much, and changed so little is that Mark’s outline and narrative were too firmly entrenched in the tradition to be ignored. Think about it; Matthew belongs to a community, and Matthew has a copy of Mark. Doesn’t this imply that he and his community were pretty familiar with Mark? So when Matthew set about to expand the narrative of Mark with new teachings of Jesus, one has to imagine the difficulty to be encountered by trying to make wholesale changes to what Mark said. Additions would be fine, and even expected; why else does one write a new gospel? But alterations that transform the previous narrative too much would likely cause a bit too much discomfort among the community.

The other issue is Judas. Did he exist? I tend to suspect not, and largely for the reasons I doubt the existence of the Twelve in Jesus’ lifetime: aside from Peter, James, John, and possibly Andrew, they do not figure at all in the narrative of the gospels. Any gospels. Andrew has a cameo when he is called, and the others are nonexistent except for when they are sent out, an activity that is highly dubious. And so with Judas: he is named when the others are, then he disappears completely until called upon to betray Jesus. That’s it. This sort of episodic appearance isn’t conducive to establishing historical credibility; rather, it makes him appear to be much more of a literary convention than anything. And too, Paul says that the words of the Last Supper were spoken on the night before Jesus was arrested, not on the night before he was betrayed, as many forms of the Consecration (Catholic and Episcopalian, at least) say. Again, Paul’s words do not conclusively prove anything, but they support the contention that the theme of Judas-as-betrayer may have, and probably did, come into being after Paul.

There is one other bit about the story of Judas and the high priests. At several points in the narrative, the high priests say that they must not act against Jesus for fear of the crowd. And the same caveat was given about John, that Herod was afraid of the crowd’s reaction if John were arrested. And with Jesus, the priests specifically warn themselves that they must not act during the festival. But that is precisely when they acted, and according to the story, not only did the crowd not protest, but they shouted for Jesus’ death. So there was no rioting. Nor was there any when John was executed. Josephus tells us that there was a certain level of schadenfreude among the populace when Herod was defeated in battle, the populace seeing this as something Herod brought upon himself because he killed John, but there were no disturbances. The implication is that, once again, this represents a literary convention rather than something historically accurate.

Finally, there is the role of Judas and its theological implications. In The Inferno, Judas sits in the bottom-most circle of Hell, along with Brutus, the assassin of Julius Caesar, and Satan himself. But what would have happened if Judas, of his free will, had chosen not to betray Jesus? Would the Divine Plan have fulfilled itself? No doubt, the immediate reaction is “of course”. God’s Will is not to be thwarted. But the implication of this is that Judas was not a necessary agent if it could have happened without him. If that is true, then why was Judas damned? This gets into all sorts of sticky wickets about Predestination & c. I don’t propose to go into that again. But the question, IMO, is valid, and carries a lot of theological consequences. We’ll leave it at that.

Summary Matthew Chapter 25

The chapter is basically a series of parables: the faithful slave who is ready for the master’s return vs the slave who’s not paying attention. The Ten Virgins with their oil lamps, some of whom may or may not have extra oil. The big one is the Parable of the Talents, meant to promote an active ethos of spiritual capitalism. There are two important points to note about this series of parables. First, all of them deal with the theme of being ready when the master or lord returns. That is to say, they are all about the expected coming of the son of man; in Matthew, that is explicitly Jesus. These stories are meant to allay concern that the expected coming of the son of man, of the lord, as Paul said, had not happened yet. We’ve discussed this before, and more than once, so there is probably no point in going through it again. What we need to takeaway from this is Matthew very insistent that this event will happen, and it may happen soon, or it may happen a bit later. Either way, it is incumbent on us as followers of Jesus to be sure that we are ready when it does happen. A bit later in the narrative Matthew will tell us what happens to those who are caught unawares, but that will be dealt with in time.

The second point about these parables is that they are all unique to Matthew. I was not aware of that as I went through the commentary; in particular, I thought that the Parable of the Talents was certainly to be found in Luke. According to my Harmony of the Gospels, this is not true. Of course, none of them are in Mark, either, but that’s to be expected. Ergo, all of these are M material, stories that are unique to Matthew. That they are not in Mark should not surprise us, especially since these are dealing with the expected coming of the lord/son of man. That theme barely surfaces in Mark; he tells us it will happen, but not often and not very specifically. What is more significant, I believe, is that they are not in Luke. The theme of what has become known as the Second Coming (a great poem by WB Yeats, btw) is wholly absent from John. Does Luke’s omission of these parables indicate a diminished emphasis on the Parousia? Perhaps, or perhaps not. We will examine that more fully when we get to Luke.

Also missing from all the other gospels is the “least of my siblings” story. This is one of the most Christian of Christian ideas in my mind, to be ranked with the Beatitudes as fundamental Christian tenets. Yet, the Beatitudes are only in half the gospels, and the least of my brothers in only one. How is that possible? What does this tell us? The implication, it seems, is that there were many different sets of beliefs among the various communities, each with its own particular emphasis, perhaps. I think that Matthew and Luke having so much in common indicates not a common source, but that Luke had actually read Matthew, and John felt the need to put the finishing touches on the theology by fully elevating Jesus into an equality with God the Father. This touches on Q, of course, and I am still of the opinion that Q never existed. That being the case, the fruition of all these basic Christian ideas in Matthew indicate that there was a fluorescence of teachings attributed to Jesus that Matthew was the first to record. This, in turn, implies that many of these very Christian teachings–the Beatitudes, the Least of my Siblings–did not originate with Jesus, but were developed later. Perhaps James is responsible for some of them, or perhaps James only provided the themes, the actual stories then being created by people like Matthew. We are so used to the idea of the evangelists recording, but the idea of them creating makes us very uncomfortable. This is, however, a very real possibility–even a probability, I might add–and it must be faced and it must be considered.

The major lessons, or the most consequential theological points, or whatever they should be called, all arose in the very last verses of the chapter. Many of these points are also novel with Matthew, with one salient exception. Matthew repeats Mark’s prophecy about the coming of the son of man. And “repeats” is particularly noteworthy here because Matthew said much the same thing back in Chapter 24, where it correlated most closely to the context of the corresponding passage in Mark; this time, however, he goes a little further. The son of man will come in his glory, again with the angels, and will sit upon his throne. In this way, Matthew’s description more closely approaches the conception expressed by Paul, wherein it’s the lord (or Lord; upper vs. lower case L makes a big difference) who is coming. Of course the word Paul uses is Greek, but it would be really interesting to note whether it sits upon something in Hebrew. Is it a translation for Adonai? This was a word often used in Judaism as a surrogate for “God”, the replacement due to the Judaic aversion to using the name of God. If this is what Paul has in mind when he said the “lord” will come, that really puts a very different reading on this.

Beyond all that, however, we should note that, in all cases, it is never sad that the lord or the son of man will “return”; that word is never used in this context by Paul, Mark, or Matthew. It is always said that he will “come”, generally using the most generic, most vanilla verb possible for this. This should be noted. Of course, with Paul, Jesus was only the Lord after the resurrection; as such, he never came in the first place since his incarnation presence didn’t constitute the coming of the Lord. Jesus, at birth and right through his death on the cross, was a man. Only after being raised did he become the Lord. That Mark says that the son of man will come–not return–truly must make us consider that Jesus was not the son of man in the eyes of the early communities of Jesus. This distinction does not hold in or for Matthew. Nowhere in Matthew does Jesus unequivocally say “I am the son of man”, but the aggregation of the small clues, or hints makes this seem like the only way to understand Matthew’s conception of Jesus. This, in turn, suggests that the matter had not been entirely settled when Matthew wrote. He danced around the issue to the extent he does because he didn’t want to alienate that group of followers who saw Jesus and the son of man as separate individuals. But not even Matthew says that “the son of man will return”.

As for the status of the son of man, Matthew has made Jesus divine, but he does not make Jesus the equal of God the Father. In the passage under discussion, the son of man will come in his glory and sit upon his throne, but the kingdom was prepared by the father, said as if this is someone other than the son of man. The latter has become a king, but the king is not the equal of the father. After all, it was the latter who prepared the kingdom, from the foundations of the cosmos. On one hand, Matthew can seem very cagey, telling us things, but never quite committing himself to a particular point of view or factual reality. In such circumstances, one feels that he has chosen his words so very carefully, weighing each one out in its meaning and implications. Then there are times when he almost seems sloppy in his thinking, unable to put two and two together to tease out the implications of what he is saying. This is one of these latter instances. Does he not see that he’s making Jesus the lesser deity? Does he see this and not care? Does he see this and agree with it? I suspect Mark was deliberately straddling the fence; he had his two different traditions and really wasn’t about to get in the middle and craft a consistent theology.

As for Matthew, my suspicion is that he saw that he was making Jesus the lesser deity, but that he was OK with that because that fit his own world-view. Now, this comes dangerously close to begging the question: why did Matthew make Jesus the lesser? Because he was a pagan and this was normal. How do we know Matthew was a pagan? Because he made Jesus the lesser deity. At least, this would be circular if it were the only potential clue that we had, but it’s not. As such, I believe we are justified to infer that Matthew saw the distinction and agreed with it. And really, by doing this, he was really only following Mark’s lead. Mark saw Jesus as adopted at baptism. This is the Adoptionist heresy. Matthew saw Jesus as divine from birth, but not the equal of God. This is Arianism. Both were later to be judged heretical, but only after the writing of John’s gospel, which made the equation of the two. And while both were later considered heresies, note how Jesus is moving up in the scale: from purely human at birth, adopted by God, to divine from birth, a literal son of God much as Herakles was the son of Zeus (minus the actual physical contact present in the Greek myth). The process will continue until it concludes with John’s “in the beginning was the Logos…” (I refuse to translate that as “Word”, no matter what St Jerome thought. And even in Latin, “verbum” is much too limiting. The semantic field of “verbum” is much closer to “word” than it is to “logos”.)

The conclusion we need to draw, I believe, is that Matthew and his contemporaries were, more or less, Arians. But this is true only because the full Truth had not yet been revealed. That is, potentially at least, an explanation that could meet criteria of orthodoxy. Or maybe not.

In one notable passage, Matthew does actually make a definitive statement. This comes in the “least of my brothers” story. Those who did do for the least of the king’s (Jesus’) brothers will enter the kingdom that has been prepared for them, from the foundations of the world. Those who don’t will be consigned to the eternal fire created for the devil and his angels. There you are: specific behaviour will yield specific results. And your reward, or punishment, will be eternal. That is very clear. Also, and I totally missed this in the commentary, we are definitively told that the kingdom is something that “will come”. It has not arrived, and it won’t arrive until the End Times. This rather forces us to ask if this is entirely consistent with Jesus beginning his ministry by preaching that “the kingdom is nigh”. The two interpretations are not really mutually exclusive in any logical sense; Jesus could be teaching that the End Times are nigh, and these will soon be followed by the coming of the kingdom. Logically, this works. But does it feel right? Do we get the sense back in the early part of Mark that Jesus is preaching about the End Times? One could interpret in this way, but that’s my point: it requires an interpretation because that is not exactly what the words feel like. That isn’t entirely their natural meaning, because it requires that the kingdom be understood in a very specific way. For the coming of the one “like a son of man” in Daniel is not a foretelling of End Times, or the kingdom of God.

There are some additional implications to this, of course. That the kingdom has been prepared from the beginning of the universe implies that God foresaw that there would be people, that some of them would be righteous, and that these righteous would inherit the kingdom. That’s all fine and good. But then God also made the eternal fire for the devil and his angels. We are not told, however, that this was made from the beginning of the universe, and the normal sense of this is that it was not. Which means God didn’t foresee the fall of the angels, and he didn’t foresee that some of his human creation would not be righteous enough to inherit the kingdom. So God, apparently, is not omniscient. This works well as a story with the inherent drama of a rebellion and a War in Heaven, the angelic host led by Michael defeating the horde of Lucifer/Satan. It doesn’t work very well as theology, especially once we start to introduce the idea of absolutes into the definition of God. The problem is that the Hebrew God and the Greek concept of the ultimate god as The One, perfect in every way, don’t really mix all that well. The fact is, the Hebrew God was, and at heart always remained, a tribal god, one of many, powerful, but not omnipotent or omniscient. The Greeks, however, determined that God/The One had to be Perfect, which meant all the omnis and a few more things, too. When the later theologians tried to reconcile the two, they found the task impossible unless certain situations and biblical passages were overlooked or conveniently forgotten. This would be one of those. But, for our purposes, none of this really matters. What does matter is that we get the definitive association of behaviour in this world and reward or punishment when the son of man finally does come. For the first time.

One last bit on the Final Days. Since Mark was written shortly after the Destruction, there could easily have been the sense that the Destruction had begun the End Times, and that the time until the coming of the son of man was not long. That would explain the “some standing here shall not taste death” until the son of man arrives. Now, this becomes rather more problematic by the time of Matthew, when the Jewish War was half-a-generation removed. Does this explain the inclusion of the parables of watchfulness we find in this chapter? And why they are included in this chapter, which follows hard on the heels of Matthew’s telling of Mark 13? And why Matthew repeats the prophecy of the coming of the son of man, after he’s already told us that he would come in the clouds back in Chapter 24? Of course, these questions cannot be answered, but I have my suspicions that the answers are affirmative. Which leads to a final question: Is this how Matthew was trying soften the implications of Mark’s prophecy?

 

Postscript: Double Predestination

I have to walk some things back that I said about Double Predestination in the commentary. As stated above, the implication of the fires for the devil seem to be more about the Hebrew God not being omniscient than about an actual formulation of Double Predestination. As such, some of the statements I made in the commentary are probably insupportable. In particular, this passage does not imply Double Predestination. God did create the kingdom ab origine. But the fire came later. This implies that God was surprised at the rebellion of the devil, not that he foresaw it and created the future rebels anyway.

 

Matthew Chapter 25:14-30

Here we have the famous Parable of the Talents. This was not in Mark, but it is in Luke, but I’m not sure it was supposedly in Q. The section before and this next section are still actually the continuation of Chapter 24. Jesus is talking about the coming judgement. There are aspects to the composition (no doubt the “masterful” composition) that are interesting about this, but they are best left to the summary. Once again the message is fairly plain, and the text is very known. I expect a minimum of comment on this.

14 Ὥσπερ γὰρ ἄνθρωπος ἀποδημῶν ἐκάλεσεν τοὺς ἰδίους δούλους καὶ παρέδωκεν αὐτοῖς τὰ ὑπάρχοντα αὐτοῦ,

15 καὶ ᾧ μὲν ἔδωκεν πέντε τάλαντα, ᾧ δὲ δύο, ᾧ δὲ ἕν, ἑκάστῳ κατὰ τὴν ἰδίαν δύναμιν, καὶ ἀπεδήμησεν. εὐθέως

16 πορευθεὶς ὁ τὰ πέντε τάλαντα λαβὼν ἠργάσατο ἐν αὐτοῖς καὶ ἐκέρδησεν ἄλλα πέντε:

17 ὡσαύτως ὁ τὰ δύο ἐκέρδησεν ἄλλα δύο.

18 ὁ δὲ τὸ ἓν λαβὼν ἀπελθὼν ὤρυξεν γῆν καὶ ἔκρυψεν τὸ ἀργύριον τοῦ κυρίου αὐτοῦ.

“For {the kingdom} even as a man journeying away from home called his private slaves and gave to them the goods of him. (15) And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his particular ability, and he went away. In the meantime, (16) the one with five talents, going out, working among them (putting them to work), and he earned five more. (17) And in the same way the he {with two} earned two more. But he with one, taking it (and) going away he dug the earth and hid the silver of his lord.

To me, the most striking aspect of this is the capitalistic sensibility displayed. The verb used of the first is that he put the talents “to work”. If that’s not capitalism, I don’t know what is, or what it is. Very enterprising slaves, these.

A word on ancient slavery. By no means do I want to soft-peddle it. Slavery is slavery, but the application of it can be very different. A certain number were given virtual death sentences by sending them to work in mines. OTOH, a certain number of slaves were very much part of the grand scheme of the master’s house. So the notion that these slaves should be so diligent about the master’s property need not be surprising. After all, the master entrusted a lot of money to his slaves.

Finally, there is the theological import. Perhaps we usually hear Luke’s version of this, for two reasons. I am used to hearing that the distribution was 10/5/1. And I am not used to hearing the line about “each according to his abilities”. That radically changes the whole sense of the story. Revelation: I pulled out my trusty Harmony of the Bible and was presented with a mild shock. Unless I’m totally misusing that volume–which is far from impossible–there is no corresponding version of this story in Luke; rather this is a “Matthew only” story. So the “to each per his/her own abilities” is integral to the story, which effectively reinforces the idea of the kingdom being a reward, while punishment is earned  & deserved.

14 Sicut enim homo peregre proficiscens vocavit servos suos et tradidit illis bona sua.

15 Et uni dedit quinque talenta, alii autem duo, alii vero unum, unicuique secundum propriam virtutem, et profectus est. Statim

16 abiit, qui quinque talenta acceperat, et operatus est in eis et lucratus est alia quinque;

17 similiter qui duo acceperat, lucratus est alia duo.

19 μετὰ δὲ πολὺν χρόνον ἔρχεται ὁ κύριος τῶν δούλων ἐκείνων καὶ συναίρει λόγον μετ’ αὐτῶν.

20 καὶ προσελθὼν ὁ τὰ πέντε τάλαντα λαβὼν προσήνεγκεν ἄλλα πέντε τάλαντα λέγων, Κύριε, πέντε τάλαντά μοι παρέδωκας: ἴδε ἄλλα πέντε τάλαντα ἐκέρδησα.

21 ἔφη αὐτῷ ὁ κύριος αὐτοῦ, Εὖ, δοῦλε ἀγαθὲ καὶ πιστέ, ἐπὶ ὀλίγα ἦς πιστός, ἐπὶ πολλῶν σε καταστήσω: εἴσελθε εἰς τὴν χαρὰν τοῦ κυρίου σου.

22 προσελθὼν [δὲ] καὶ ὁ τὰ δύο τάλαντα εἶπεν, Κύριε, δύο τάλαντά μοι παρέδωκας: ἴδε ἄλλα δύο τάλαντα ἐκέρδησα.

23ἔφη αὐτῷ ὁ κύριος αὐτοῦ, Εὖ, δοῦλε ἀγαθὲ καὶ πιστέ, ἐπὶ ὀλίγα ἦς πιστός, ἐπὶ πολλῶν σε καταστήσω: εἴσελθε εἰς τὴν χαρὰν τοῦ κυρίου σου.

“After much time the master of those slaves came {back} and took up speech with them. (20) And coming forward the one receiving five talents brought forth the other five talents saying, ‘Lord, you handed over five talents to me. Behold another five talents that I have earned’. (21) And his master said to him, ‘Well {done}, good slave and faithful. Upon a little {you were} faithful, upon much I will place you. Therefore come into the delight of your lord’. (22)  And also coming forward he {given} the two said, ‘Lord, two talents you have given me. Behold the other two talents I have earned’. (23) He said to him [the slave], ‘Well done good and faithful servant, upon little faithful, upon much I will stand you. Therefore come into the delight of your lord’.

Just a few minor matters. I had been translating “kyrios” as “master”. That works, but “lord” is better. Not that it’s any more accurate, but because it has the double implication of an earthly AND a heavenly lord. The Jews often referred to God as “lord” (Adonnai, IIRC?) in order to circumvent the need to use the word “God” or YHWH.

Second, the expression<<δοῦλε ἀγαθὲ καὶ πιστέ >> is in the vocative case. This is reserved for direct address, when speaking directly to someone. As such, it does not get a lot of use in historical, or expository writing; it’s much more common in poetry (O Nightingale) or prayer (O Zeus), or even drama. In works such as the NT, where there is no direct dialogue. Pater Noster, and its Greek equivalent are technically in the vocative, but for the word “father” in both languages the vocative and the nominative case have the same ending. Words ending in -us (Latin) or -os (Greek) generally have a distinctive ending for the vocative.

“Come into the delight of your lord” is rather an interesting phrase, and concept. The KJV and others give this as “enter into the joy of your lord”, and that may have a more natural sense in English. The NIV provides “come share in the joy”, which sort of gets the message across, but is dead wrong as far as the Greek goes. Regardless, the implication is pretty straightforward, that the servants are to be rewarded. More, the proper inference is that they will be rewarded eternally, in the joy of the kingdom.

18 Qui autem unum acceperat, abiens fodit in terra et abscondit pecuniam domini sui.

19 Post multum vero temporis venit dominus servorum illorum et ponit rationem cum eis.

20 Et accedens, qui quinque talenta acceperat, obtulit alia quinque talenta dicens: “Domine, quinque talenta tradidisti mihi; ecce alia quinque superlucratus sum”.

21 Ait illi dominus eius: “Euge, serve bone et fidelis. Super pauca fuisti fidelis; supra multa te constituam: intra in gaudium domini tui”.

22 Accessit autem et qui duo talenta acceperat, et ait: “Domine, duo talenta tradidisti mihi; ecce alia duo lucratus sum”.

23 Ait illi dominus eius: “Euge, serve bone et fidelis. Super pauca fuisti fidelis; supra multa te constituam: intra in gaudium domini tui”.

24 προσελθὼν δὲ καὶ ὁ τὸ ἓν τάλαντον εἰληφὼς εἶπεν, Κύριε, ἔγνων σε ὅτι σκληρὸς εἶ ἄνθρωπος, θερίζων ὅπου οὐκ ἔσπειρας καὶ συνάγων ὅθεν οὐ διεσκόρπισας:

25 καὶ φοβηθεὶς ἀπελθὼν ἔκρυψα τὸ τάλαντόν σου ἐν τῇ γῇ: ἴδε ἔχεις τὸ σόν.

26 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ κύριος αὐτοῦ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Πονηρὲ δοῦλε καὶ ὀκνηρέ, ᾔδεις ὅτι θερίζω ὅπου οὐκ ἔσπειρα καὶ συνάγω ὅθεν οὐ διεσκόρπισα;

27 ἔδει σε οὖν βαλεῖν τὰ ἀργύριά μου τοῖς τραπεζίταις, καὶ ἐλθὼν ἐγὼ ἐκομισάμην ἂν τὸ ἐμὸν σὺν τόκῳ.

28 ἄρατε οὖν ἀπ’ αὐτοῦ τὸ τάλαντον καὶ δότε τῷ ἔχοντι τὰ δέκα τάλαντα:  

29 τῷ γὰρ ἔχοντι παντὶ δοθήσεται καὶ περισσευθήσεται: τοῦ δὲ μὴ ἔχοντος καὶ ὃ ἔχει ἀρθήσεται ἀπ’ αὐτοῦ.

30 καὶ τὸν ἀχρεῖον δοῦλον ἐκβάλετε εἰς τὸ σκότος τὸ ἐξώτερον: ἐκεῖ ἔσται ὁ κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὁ βρυγμὸς τῶν ὀδόντων.

Coming forward, also he having received one talent said,  ‘Lord, I know that you are a hard man, reaping where  you do not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter. (25) And I being afraid went out and hid your talent in the ground. Look, you have what is yours’. (26) Answering the lord said to him, ‘Wicked slave and slothful, you knew that I reap where I do not sow, and gather where I do not reap. (27) So you ought have thrown my money to the exchangers (money changers), and coming I carried off what was mine plus growth (i.e., usury = interest; lit =  birth). (28) Take from him the talent and give it to the one having ten talents. (29) For to him has all been given and he has reproduced abundance. From him not having and what he has will be taken. (30) And the useless slave throw him into the darkness outside. There will be the wailing and gnashing of teeth’.”

What was I saying about capitalism? There is something extremely harsh about all of this. Yes, it’s metaphorical, and yes, it’s meant to instill a bit of fear, but this sounds so much like the modern business world that it’s a bit scary. The slave with one talent did nothing wrong; he did not squander the money, nor lose it, nor do anything disreputable with the money. He kept it safe. No more, but no less. But this was not enough for the greedy lord. He wanted return, and not only a return, but a doubling of his money. That is a pretty harsh demand, and a very high expectation. And it’s not simply that the slothful slave is not rewarded; he’s actively punished. This feels like Jack Welch’s “Up or Out” system of review during his tenure at GE. An employee was either worthy of advancement (up), or he was fired (out). And they were pretty much always a ‘he’. Now, this was only for higher-level executives, but still, talk about a cutthroat atmosphere! So here it wasn’t that the slothful slave was able to work out his tenure doing his job; rather, he was fired. Think about this, and then think about the message of the Prodigal Son. Could they be more diametrically opposed? There the son did squander the money and engage in riotous living. 

But the truly grinding part of this is the message: he who has nothing/little, even that will be taken away. Wow. At least the contrapositive of this is not added: that to him who has, even more will be given. Of course, that is exactly what happened. The one with the most got more. And it’s not like the second didn’t provide an equal return; he did. Both earned a gain of 100%. And it’s arguable that the second had to work harder, because the more you have in principle to start with, usually you can earn a higher return. So I would have given it to the one who started with two. Regardless, the message here is that the rich get richer, even if it’s not stated explicitly. Of course, the “gains” being discussed are meant to be spiritual, but that is not what is said. I don’t honestly know if this happened, but I can certainly imagine the good Puritans using this story to justify a lot of sharp business practices, to justify chasing after money and serving Mammon rather than God. I know there was a long-lived debate about whether it was acceptable to lend money at interest, the Church being generally opposed. The solution was for Jews to act as money lenders, then bankers. Neither side was terribly concerned about the prospects for eternity of the other, so it was not considered sinful. IIRC, the Rothschilds originally made their money as bankers.

Yes, again I understand that there is a didactic point being made here: make use of your talents. (BTW: the word in Greek transliterates to ‘talenta’.) If you do not, you will be punished. Presumably the “return” you are to make is to bring others into the community? That is not completely clear, but it seems a reasonable inference. Regardless, the real and true purpose of this story is to light a fire under believers, to get them to appreciate the need to get up and hustle for your salvation, that you cannot be complacent or just nurture what you have. Rather, you have to be active in seeking your salvation. So I think the existence of this story indicates a situation in which the literal coming of the kingdom was seeming a bit less likely, leading to a “why bother” sort of mentality. Hence the reference to Noah.

So I think it’s safe to infer that, with this gospel, we are at a point when the Parousia seems a little less imminent, the kingdom perhaps seems a little less nigh. I don’t think we’ve quite turned the corner into John, when the idea of the Second Coming has truly receded, but the first steps along that path have been taken. Indeed, perhaps we’ve taken the second and third sets of steps on that path. It is interesting to not that the concept of a “Parousia” (which should be ‘parousia’) has been coined, leading to it being referred to as a noun unto itself. It is the parousia now, even if the word is never used by Luke, and only shows up in some of the epistles. That Matthew labels it as a something, I believe, tells us that he saw it as necessary, or at least important, to establish–or re-emphasize, perhaps–this as an idea, to remind the community of the faithful that it was going to happen. the next step on this process, I believe, will be to equate one’s personal death with Judgement Day. That will not happen within the context of the NT.

24 Accedens autem et qui unum talentum acceperat, ait: “Domine, novi te quia homo durus es: metis, ubi non seminasti, et congregas, ubi non sparsisti;

25 et timens abii et abscondi talentum tuum in terra. Ecce habes, quod tuum est”.

26 Respondens autem dominus eius dixit ei: “Serve male et piger! Sciebas quia meto, ubi non seminavi, et congrego, ubi non sparsi?

27 Oportuit ergo te mittere pecuniam meam nummulariis, et veniens ego recepissem, quod meum est cum usura.

28 Tollite itaque ab eo talentum et date ei, qui habet decem talenta:

29 omni enim habenti dabitur, et abundabit; ei autem, qui non habet, et quod habet, auferetur ab eo.

30 Et inutilem servum eicite in tenebras exteriores: illic erit fletus et stridor dentium”.

Summary Matthew Chapter 24

The intent was to compare and contrast Matthew 24 with Mark 13 in order to see what had changed in the interim. Then, we’d examine the changes for a theme, and develop a theory for why the changes had occurred, and then use this to explain developments in the beliefs of the followers of Jesus. One problem: the two chapters are virtually identical. I could copy & paste the Summary of Mark 13, make some very minor changes, and then call it a day. Tempted as I might be, we’ll try a different approach.

There are some minor differences. In Mark, Jesus explains the signs to Peter, James, and John; in Matthew, he tells all the disciples. Speaking of temptation, it is very tempting to see this as perhaps more significant than it may be. One of my contentions is that Jesus did not have an inner circle of Twelve; I suspect that was implemented by James, on very little evidence whatsoever. In Mark, Jesus seems to have five chief followers: the three just named, Peter’s brother Andrew, and Judas who betrayed him. And note that Judas is not mentioned until the very end, and the rest of the Twelve, Matthias and Phillip and whatever the rest of them were named are exactly that: named. The term is more common in Matthew, but written later we would expect that. In Mark, the term really does not become lodged in the vocabulary until the Passion story, when it’s used instead of disciples. There is a body of opinion that believes the Passion story had a separate genesis from the gospel itself. It’s possible that the creators of this narrative were familiar with a tradition of the Twelve, where the rest of the stories Mark accumulated were from a different (set of) tradition(s).

This has an interesting implication. If the Twelve are in the Passion narrative, and the Twelve are part of the James tradition, does that mean, or possibly imply, that the Passion narrative came from James and his group? It’s possible, but not necessary. James is considered to represent the Jewish roots of Jesus’ teaching; that is certainly the impression Paul provides. As such, it seems unlikely that James would be the one to come up with the idea of blaming the Jewish authorities. With this, we have acknowledge that there is an opinion that the Passion narrative predates the rest of the gospel. It appears, however, that this opinion is under fire and does not command the respect that perhaps it once did. The other consideration is that it is, above all, the Passion story that attempts–almost desperately–to exonerate the Romans and place blame for Jesus’ execution on the Jews. As I have seen, this very, very clearly of a piece with Josephus’ attitudes in The Jewish War. This puts the composition of the Passion story after 70, after the destruction of the Temple, at the same time that Chapter 13 was composed.

Lately I have been toying with the idea that perhaps Mark was written both before and after 70. That is to say, Mark composed up to, say, Chapter 9 prior to the War, and then adding 10-15 after. The thing with this theory is that it’s entirely unnecessary. If you’ll recall, my analogy for Mark was that of a weaver, weaving the strands of different traditions into a single, unitary narrative. He would have, or could have done this starting in 67 (e.g.) and then completing it all after 70. Or, he could have written the whole thing after 70. I will maintain that the War and its consequent destruction of the Jerusalem assembly left a bit of a hole in the fabric of the Christian assemblies, which the composition of a written “good news” was intended to fill. The Jerusalem assembly may have been moribund in a real sense prior to the war, but the loss could still have had serious psychological impact. And it would have particularly benefitted any surviving members of the Jerusalem assembly to come up with a story that put distance between them and the rebel Jews. This could put Mark into the category of a refugee from the war; it’s an interesting theory, but there are apparently a few geographical mistakes which make it seem that Mark was not familiar with either Galilee or Judea or both. More likely, he got his story from a refugee. Perhaps even more likely is that he got the story from someone on the Roman side: the outline, but lacking in details. But then, Mark didn’t really need details; he only needed the outline. One thing I do find hard to credit is that Mark was a companion of Peter. How was it that Peter did not tell Mark about Jesus’ teachings? How did those end up in Q and not in Mark. Yes, explanations can be provided; the problem is, this requires further elaboration on the story. And, somewhat counterintuitively, the more complex the story, the less likely it is to be true. This is especially true for stories told a distance in either place or time. Here we have both.

One other minor difference between the two versions is that Matthew has the non-specific disciples specifically asking Jesus for the signs of his Parousia. Interesting to note that Matthew is the only evangelist to use this word; all other occurrences are in epistles, mostly in the three letters of Paul that we’ve read: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians. Matthew only uses the word four times, and they are all in this chapter. The first is in Verse 3, when the disciples ask for the signs; the other are in Verses 27, 37, and 39. All pertain to the Parousia of the son of man. Now, the significance of this is blunted to some extent. Mark certainly connects the horrors of those times with the coming of the son of man; it’s just that Mark does not use the term “parousia”. But he talks about the sun being blackened, the moon not giving light, & c. These two couplets are both from Isaiah, but they are from different parts of Isaiah, Chapters 13 & 34; however both are talking about the day of the lord, when he comes in anger, so the reference is appropriate.

Just a word about “parousia”. It’s another of those Greek words (like baptize) that has a special meaning in English that is completely absent in Greek. It simply means “presence”, or “arrival”, which we is probably how we should take it when used of the son of man. Now note that: it does not mean return. If Jesus is going to make a second coming, is going to arrive a second time, would it not be more appropriate to talk about his return? Is there a very subtle linguistic clue here? Of course, I just said that Mark does not use the word, even though Matthew does. Mark simply says the son of man is coming; again, a very neutral, ordinary verb. But he does not say that the son of man is returning, so I don’t think the use or non-use of this particular word is all that significant; it’s the idea of what it means that matters. There is nothing special about the word; in 1 Corinthians 16, Paul talks about the parousia, the arrival, of three assistants in Corinth, and there are a few other neutral uses of the word in the NT–almost all of them in epistles.

Rather, I would suspect that the non-use of the term is compatible with Paul’s non-use of the term “son of man”. Paul talks about the arrival of the lord; he does not talk about the return of Jesus. For, to Paul, Jesus the man was not returning; rather, the apotheosis of Jesus, as the lord, was to arrive. This could, perhaps, provide a clue about the son of man. If Mark is still reflecting the earlier belief that Jesus the man was not entirely divine, then this would explain why Mark has Jesus talk about the son of man in more-or-less third-person terms. Jesus is effectively saying that the son of man will come as prophesied in Daniel, with the implication that he is to be the son of man. In this way, the son of man both is and is not Jesus. Of course, this runs the risk of being overly complex, but it does provide some rationale for the ambivalence and ambiguity about Jesus’ divinity found in Mark.

Matthew, of course, has no such ambivalence. Jesus was divine from birth. That event was proclaimed even in the stars as seen by the magoi. This means Jesus was a figure of cosmic significance right from the start. And since Matthew alternates son of man with son of God, the identity of the two becomes clear.

One interesting omission from Mark involves the intimate nature of the coming tribulation. Matthew does not tell us that brother will betray brother, or that a father will betray his child. Rather, he adds the analogy to Noah, and tells us that of two women or two men, one will be taken and the other will not. This, I think, reflects the added distance from the war that Matthew had. Some of the grim details of civil war that were so important, perhaps because they were so fresh, to Mark have faded into the background for Matthew. So the latter omits the references to civil war, and adds references to an earlier apocalypse, that of Noah, and the more supernatural element of one being taken while the other is left.

Looking at the big picture, the changes from Mark are fairly minor, and largely can be described as tinkering about the edges. Matthew retains the main outline and major themes; he adjusts the focus a bit, making this a little less about an actual physical event and more about a cosmic event, but there is nothing terribly startling. This similarity indicates that the thought-world of the church had not moved too far between the times of the writings of these too gospels, but it had moved. The most telling difference, I think, is the addition of the parable of the faithful and wicked slaves. The time is still coming, the day of the lord approaches, but the exact timing is uncertain. Therefore, we need to be like the faithful servant: be ready, be watchful. Do not suppose like the wicked servant that the time has been delayed. Most likely this directly addressed a real situation among Christian communities. Paul expected it momentarily; but two generations have come and gone since then and there has been no coming. It is easy to see where this would make the followers of Jesus a bit concerned, leaving them perhaps a bit demoralized. To paraphrase Cicero, how long, o lord, must we endure? No doubt that was a difficult question for leaders of the various assemblies. This parable was added to address exactly this question.