Category Archives: Matthew’s Gospel
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.
This chapter is very long; it runs to some 80 verses. However, the sections seem to be going fairly quickly. This is largely because the narrative is broken into story-segments, in which the whole is more significant than the pieces, at least to some degree, and to this point. We are still in the story of Zacharias, the father of the Baptist. He has emerged from the Temple sanctuary mute after having a conversation with a messenger of God.
24 Μετὰ δὲ ταύτας τὰς ἡμέρας συνέλαβεν Ἐλισάβετ ἡ γυνὴ αὐτοῦ: καὶ περιέκρυβεν ἑαυτὴν μῆνας πέντε, λέγουσα
25 ὅτι Οὕτως μοι πεποίηκεν κύριος ἐν ἡμέραις αἷς ἐπεῖδεν ἀφελεῖν ὄνειδός μου ἐν ἀνθρώποις.
After these days, Elisabeth his wife conceived; and she confined herself for five months, saying that “In this way the lord has done with me, in days which he saw (as in, saw fit) to take away my reproach (the reproach directed at her) among men.
Now we have switched to Elisabeth. I don’t recall offhand whether Zacharias makes another appearance or not; regardless, both of the parents of the Baptist disappear completely after these opening verses. They simply vanish with nary another thought. That’s just the way it is. The question, I think, is not where they go, but where did they come from? This stuff is, by definition, L material, stories that Luke got from a mysterious source unknown to the other evangelists, and either not known or not used by John. This takes us back to the very beginning of this gospel and those “servants” that he mentioned. Honestly, though, isn’t the most likely answer that Luke made this up, along with all the other new additions to the story of Jesus? It is, quite frankly. And the fact that there are so many of them adds weight to the suggestion, since the collection indicates that we are dealing with a creative mind working at a high level.
24 Post hos autem dies concepit Elisabeth uxor eius et occultabat se mensibus quinque dicens:
25 “Sic mihi fecit Dominus in diebus, quibus respexit auferre opprobrium meum inter homines”.
26 Ἐν δὲ τῷ μηνὶ τῷ ἕκτῳ ἀπεστάλη ὁ ἄγγελος Γαβριὴλ ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ εἰς πόλιν τῆς Γαλιλαίας ἧ ὄνομα Ναζαρὲθ
27 πρὸς παρθένον ἐμνηστευμένην ἀνδρὶ ᾧ ὄνομαἸωσὴφ ἐξ οἴκου Δαυίδ, καὶ τὸ ὄνομα τῆς παρθένου Μαριάμ.
In the sixth month, the messenger Gabriel was sent by God to the town of Galilee the name (of which) was Nazareth (27) to the virgin betrothed to a man the name to whom was Joseph, from the house of David, and the name of the virgin was Mariam.
Bear in mind that the Jewish new year starts in September, at the time of the equinox, IIRC. In which case, the sixth month is March. In the Roman Church the Feast of the Annunciation is celebrated March 25, which happens to be exactly nine months before December 25. Now, this is interesting because I’ve read that the whole bit about the shepherds being out with their flocks indicates a time of year other than the winter. But let’s give the text points for consistency. Let’s not speculate when the phrase “in the sixth month” was actually added to the text. Could it have been inserted after the date for Christmas was settled on December 25? Yes, that is entirely possible.
Now I count three. Three what? We’ve got Nazareth, Joseph, and, most importantly, the virgin. That Jesus was from Nazareth occurs exactly once in Mark, in 1:9. It occurs several times in both Matthew and Luke. Since Mark was altogether unconcerned with Jesus’ background, or the physical aspects of his earthly life, it is very easy to suppose that the use in Mark was added after it had become established lore that Jesus was from Nazareth. So, if this was not in Q–and it can’t be, since it’s in Mark, too, if only added later–then where did Luke get this “fact” about Jesus? And let’s not forget that Matthew came up with the name of the home town in order to add the prophecy that “he will be called a Nazarene”. The internal evidence of the text, as I’ve argued, indicates that Jesus came from Caphernaum.
And, BTW, John only mentions Nazareth twice, both times coming in the same story in Chapter 1.
Secondly, we have Joseph. Once again, this “fact” is not found in any text of Q. Again, it’s i Matthew. Again, we know one definite source for both of these two facts; the simplest explanation is that Luke got them from Matthew. Yes, could be part of the oral tradition. but we don’t know, and can’t know that. We do know our earliest recorded source. I am positively flabbergasted that these two things never come up in discussions about Q. Why not? I can understand why the Q people wouldn’t want to go there, but what about the Mark Without Q proponents? Is their sense of historical evidence and/or argument so badly stunted that this never occurs to them? Part of the problem is that the Q people have been so successful in entrenching Q in the “scholarship” that they have been able completely to set the parameters and the
26 In mense autem sexto missus est angelus Gabriel a Deo in civitatem Galilaeae, cui nomen Nazareth,
27 ad virginem desponsatam viro, cui nomen erat Ioseph de domo David, et nomen virginis Maria.
acceptable in the debate.
In my opinion, the clincher is the virgin. This is based on the quote from Isaiah, translated into Greek. Now, reading the HS in the LXX was not uncommon; IIRC, Philo of Alexandria read the LXX rather than the Hebrew version. But where and when did that quote from Isaiah become associated with Jesus? In Matthew. There is no mention of the birth, let alone a virgin birth in any of the reconstructed versions of Q that I’ve ever seen. So, once again, why is this not discussed in conjunction with Luke’s use of Matthew? This seems almost impossible to explain if Luke did not use Matthew. Again, using the oral tradition may be tempting, but how much, but more critically, to what level of detail are we to assume was transmitted via the oral tradition? Then we need to consider subsequent development. We obviously know that the idea of the virgin birth lodged–firmly–in Christian tradition. Now let’s realize that this is only found in two books of the entire NT; more, it’s only found in the first chapter of those two books. That’s it. It occurs in Matthew’s birth narrative and here in Luke’s birth narrative. The clear inference to be drawn here is that this was not a belief that was firmly lodged in the “tradition”, whether oral, written, or whatever combination of the two. Given this, it would seem imprudent, if not foolish, to assume that Luke simply plucked this out of the air of the ambient “tradition”, or unspecified and unnameable “oral sources”, when all the evidence tells us that it was not part of the overall tradition. In the entirety of the rest of the NT, only Luke picked up on the idea. When you think about it, we have a large overlap of material that is not in Mark shared between Matthew and Luke, and on top of that we have a very specific, very rare bit of belief that the two–and only these two–share. This is not smoking-gun proof; that will never be found. But the connexions here between Matthew and Luke make it very, very difficult to accept as remotely probable that Luke was unaware of Matthew. This is just too coincidental otherwise. The placement, the wording, the overlaps, those are all secondary, if not tertiary points that can be used in support of an argument, but they alone do not constitute an argument.
26 In mense autem sexto missus est angelus Gabriel a Deo in civitatem Galilaeae, cui nomen Nazareth,
27 ad virginem desponsatam viro, cui nomen erat Ioseph de domo David, et nomen virginis Maria.
28 καὶ εἰσελθὼν πρὸς αὐτὴν εἶπεν, Χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη, ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ.
29 ἡδὲ ἐπὶ τῷ λόγῳ διεταράχθη καὶ διελογίζετο ποταπὸς εἴη ὁ ἀσπασμὸς οὗτος.
30 καὶ εἶπεν ὁ ἄγγελος αὐτῇ, Μὴ φοβοῦ, Μαριάμ, εὗρες γὰρ χάριν παρὰ τῷ θεῷ:
31 καὶ ἰδοὺ συλλήμψῃ ἐν γαστρὶ καὶ τέξῃ υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν.
32 οὗτος ἔσται μέγας καὶ υἱὸς ὑψίστου κληθήσεται, καὶ δώσει αὐτῷ κύριος ὁ θεὸς τὸν θρόνον Δαυὶδ τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτοῦ,
33 καὶ βασιλεύσει ἐπὶ τὸν οἶκον Ἰακὼβ εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, καὶ τῆς βασιλείας αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἔσται τέλος.
And he (the messenger) coming in to her said, “Rejoice, having been favoured, the lord is with you”. (29) Indeed, upon the speech she was troubled, and dialogued in what manner this greeting could be. (30) And the messenger said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mariam, for you have found grace beside God. (31) And look, you will conceive in your belly and will give birth to a son, and you will call his name Jesus. (32) He will be great, and he will be called son of the most high, the lord the God will give him the throne of David his father, (33) and he will reign in the home of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom will be no end.”
There is a whole lot of allusions to Matthew here. We mentioned this regarding John, but the “you will call the name to him Jesus” is pretty much verbatim from Matthew, and it’s used in the very same context that Matthew has it. Granted, the person on the other end of the prophecy has change, and even changed sex, but the idea is identical. And yet, this never comes up in the Q discussions as part of Q, nor is it ever mentioned as an agreement that has to be explained. Why not? Because I don’t think it can be explained, at least not in terms of Q. I’ve just been re-reading one of Kloppenborg’s books, Q The Earliest Gospel, and he talks about “Minimal Q”. This includes all the stuff that’s in Luke and Matthew that’s not in Mark. This would certainly qualify under that criterion, but it’s nowhere to be found in the reconstructions. Instead, we get all these unprovable discussions about why Matthew or Luke deviated, or kept close to the source.
There is also a lot of connecting to the HS as well. We have the reference to David, and that Jesus is of the line of David. Now, do we have to take this literally? Because, strictly speaking, in Matthew Jesus is not of the line of David, because Joseph was not Jesus’ father. There I think we have a pretty clear indication of how the whole virgin birth got grafted onto another version of who Jesus was. And also note that Matthew called Joseph the son of David, so this seems like another instance where Luke is very thematically linked to Matthew, even if the story seems to be very different. Here perhaps is a good introduction to the idea of Luke as a novelist; Matthew’s creation of Joseph is very functional, but not much more. Here, the announcement, perhaps I should call it the Annunciation, is so much more than that, to the point that people don’t even particularly notice just how the two versions of the messenger story are linked together by themes. The underlying idea is Matthew’s, but the decoration is all from Luke, who has turned this into a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and he’s given us dialogue, not just an announcement from a herald or messenger, and he’s given us psychological insights, for we are told Mary was troubled by all of this. As well she might be when a divine creature suddenly shows up in your living room.
Finally, I think that the idea of Jesus’ kingdom being eternal is a new development; I don’t recall that from previous gospels or epistles. However, I cannot say that with certainty. I’ll keep an eye out and see.
28 Et ingressus ad eam dixit: “Ave, gratia plena, Dominus tecum”.
29 Ipsa autem turbata est in sermone eius et cogitabat qualis esset ista salutatio.
30 Et ait angelus ei: “Ne timeas, Maria; invenisti enim gratiam apud Deum.
31 Et ecce concipies in utero et paries filium et vocabis nomen eius Iesum.
32 Hic erit magnus et Filius Altissimi vocabitur, et dabit illi Dominus Deus sedem David patris eius,
33 et regnabit super domum Iacob in aeternum, et regni eius non erit finis”.
34 εἶπεν δὲ Μαριὰμ πρὸς τὸν ἄγγελον, Πῶς ἔσται τοῦτο, ἐπεὶ ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω;
35 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ ἄγγελος εἶπεν αὐτῇ, Πνεῦμα ἅγιον ἐπελεύσεται ἐπὶ σέ, καὶ δύναμις ὑψίστου ἐπισκιάσει σοι: διὸ καὶ τὸ γεννώμενον ἅγιον κληθήσεται, υἱὸς θεοῦ.
Mariam said towards the messenger, “How will this be, since Ido not know a man?” (35)And answering the messenger said to her, “The sacred breath will complete this upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you. And on which account these occurrences holy he will be called, the son of God”.
The “sacred breath will complete this.” Once more, we have a bit of Matthew’s Christology, or theology, or explanation used in exactly the same context by Luke. In both these gospels, and nowhere else, Jesus was conceived within Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. God literally breathed on her and effected this miracle. Again, the details match up exactly. The angel, the virgin, the holy spirit. Where did Luke get this? I stated this before, and I will restate it here for additional emphasis, that these pieces of the story are not to be found anywhere else. They show up in no gospel, nor in Thomas nor in Q. So whence did they come? Where did Luke find them? The answer is pretty close to being blindingly obvious: he got them from Matthew. Yes, yes, they could be parallel development, but the degree of agreement pretty much excludes a coincidental arrival at the same place by two separate authors. This is not the result of a random set of circumstances. And yes, each evangelist could have tapped into the same oral tradition, but that is not an argument, nor an hypothesis. There is no way either to prove or disprove this contention. And it falls into the same category as Q: it was there for Matthew and Luke and then subsequently vanished without a trace. If this is so probable, why didn’t Mark disappear, too? He was cannibalized pretty much completely. Are we to assume that a gospel that was squishy on Jesus’ divinity was preserved, where the collected sayings of The Man Himself were tossed into the junk pile? Does that really seem credible? Sure, it’s possible, but does it really, and I mean really make sense?
That is the question you have to ask yourself, and answer for yourself. But you must ask that question.
34 Dixit autem Maria ad angelum: “Quomodo fiet istud, quoniam virum non cognosco?”.
35 Et respondens angelus dixit ei: “ Spiritus Sanctus superveniet in te, et virtus Altissimi obumbrabit tibi: ideoque et quod nascetur sanctum, vocabitur Filius Dei.
36 καὶ ἰδοὺ Ἐλισάβετ ἡ συγγενίς σου καὶ αὐτὴ συνείληφεν υἱὸν ἐν γήρει αὐτῆς, καὶ οὗτος μὴν ἕκτος ἐστὶν αὐτῇ τῇ καλουμένῃ στείρᾳ:
37 ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ πᾶν ῥῆμα.
38 εἶπεν δὲ Μαριάμ, Ἰδοὺ ἡ δούλη κυρίου: γένοιτό μοι κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου. καὶ ἀπῆλθεν ἀπ’ αὐτῆς ὁ ἄγγελος.
“And you know, Elisabeth your kinswoman, she also has conceived a son in her old age, and this indeed in the sixth month to her the barren one is called. (Six months ago she was called barren). (37) That is not impossible for God, the all the writings (say). [Translation here is very literal; the more idiomatic would be that nothing is impossible. And in a literal sense, the “say” has to be understood.] (38) Mary said, “Behold the slave-girl of the lord. It may be according to your words.” And went away from her the messenger.
Here’s another question: is “slave girl” over the top? Or is it unflinchingly accurate. But “handmaid” and “servant” really don’t capture the word. “Doule” means “slave”, in this case female. I would take “bondmaid”. It’s just that this word has become distasteful to us; “slave” was even too much for the KJV. The NASB preserves the sense by using “bondmaid”, but there is a degree of separation even there. This sort of thing, along with “baptize”, “angel”, and “Holy Spirit” have become, I think, impediments to our being able to see the NT as anything but a work that is somehow outside the realm of human existence. It is a creation, a whole, a separate entity protected by this veil of euphemisms (handmaid) and what have become pre-conceived notions (Holy Spirit) in our culture. We fall into those “everybody knows” traps, in which basic premises are never challenged. They’re really not even recognized as premises; they are understood a priori as having a very specific and rock-solid meaning when they have no such meaning. This is the problem I have with “NT Greek”. Even conceding that such a thing exists–which I don’t, except in terms so abstruse as to be almost meaningless–it becomes a closed system, self-referential and never seeing itself in context. Words have pre-set meanings that may–or may not–have a strong connexion to the meaning of the word in the rest of Greek literature. To dislodge us from these mental ruts is the biggest reason I insist on being a crank and looking outside the world of “NT Greek” and seeing these words and these texts in the larger context of the Greek language.
36 Et ecce Elisabeth cognata tua et ipsa concepit filium in senecta sua, et hic mensis est sextus illi, quae vocatur sterilis,
37 quia non erit impossibile apud Deum omne verbum ”.
38 Dixit autem Maria: “ Ecce ancilla Domini; fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum ”. Et discessit ab illa angelus.
As the scene opens, we are with Zacahrias inside the temple sanctuary where he is holding conversation with a herald of God. It did not occur to me before, but presumably (obviously?) this is the Temple in Jerusalem. This would mean that Zacharias is at least a few rungs up on the socio-economic scale. The priests were well-t0-do, because all God’s friends were rich, an attitude that, unfortunately, too many still share today. And it wasn’t just among Jews, either. The pagans felt much the same way. That is a very important bit of knowledge to carry in your head as we progress through this gospel.
12 καὶ ἐταράχθη Ζαχαρίας ἰδών, καὶ φόβος ἐπέπεσεν ἐπ’ αὐτόν.
13 εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς αὐτὸν ὁ ἄγγελος, Μὴ φοβοῦ, Ζαχαρία, διότι εἰσηκούσθη ἡ δέησίς σου, καὶ ἡ γυνή σου Ἐλισάβετ γεννήσει υἱόν σοι, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰωάννην.
And disturbed was Zacharias seeing, and fear fell upon him. (13) And said towards him the herald, “Do not fear, Zacharias, because your need was heard, and your woman Elisabeth will bring forth a son, and you will call the name to him John”.
First of all, let’s look at the last bit. “You will call the name to him…” Sort of reminds me of <<καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν>>. That is Matthew 1:21; here we have << καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰωάννην>>. The two are verbatim with the obvious exception of the name. This is not part of Q by anyone’s definition, or edition. Now, one can suggest that this is a standard expression, and that would be a valid statement. But…In both cases, we have an angel announcing a miraculous birth to a man, whether Joseph in Matthew, or here to Zacharias. Granted, perhaps this one is not quite as miraculous, because this baby has a human father. That detail aside, the two scenarios, and the words used, are remarkably similar, verbally and thematically. It’s this latter that is virtually ignored in the discussion about Q and whether Luke used Matthew. Here we have Luke doing everything he can to evoke those verses of Matthew when Joseph is told a son has been conceived within Mary. Oh, and the angel also tells Joseph “Don’t be afraid”. And yet, I’ve never seen this discussed in regard to Q. Why not? Part of it is that the Q people have set the terms of the debate for the past century, and those terms are the order and placement of material in Matthew vs. Luke. IOW, the debate is virtually without real substance.
While looking into this in the commentaries, I came across a really interesting interpretation. And it was not put out by just one commentator, but by several. They suggest that Zacharias and Elisabeth had reconciled themselves to being childless, especially given their advanced years. So, their entreaty–this is not the standard word for “prayer”–was not for a child. The couple had, we are told, given up on that years before; rather, the entreaty was for the kingdom of God. Have to say, that seems a bit of a stretch. It’s the sort of thing that comes up after a topic has been debated endlessly for decades; I’m betting that this interpretation is post-Reformation, so the debate was one of decades rather than centuries.
12 et Zacharias turbatus est videns, et timor irruit super eum.
13 Ait autem ad illum angelus: “ Ne timeas, Zacharia, quoniam exaudita est deprecatio tua, et uxor tua Elisabeth pariet tibi filium, et vocabis nomen eius Ioannem.
14 καὶ ἔσται χαρά σοι καὶ ἀγαλλίασις, καὶ πολλοὶ ἐπὶ τῇ γενέσει αὐτοῦ χαρήσονται:
15 ἔσται γὰρ μέγας ἐνώπιον [τοῦ] κυρίου, καὶ οἶνον καὶ σίκερα οὐ μὴ πίῃ, καὶ πνεύματος ἁγίου πλησθήσεται ἔτι ἐκ κοιλίας μητρὸς αὐτοῦ,
16 καὶ πολλοὺς τῶν υἱῶν Ἰσραὴλ ἐπιστρέψει ἐπὶ κύριον τὸν θεὸν αὐτῶν.
“And there will be joy to you and rejoicing, and many upon the birth of him will rejoice. For he will be great before the lord, and wine and strong drink he will not drink, and with the sacred breath he will be filled already from the womb of his mother, (16) and he will turn many of the sons of Israel towards the lord their God.”
Anyone who claims that the early church was embarrassed by Jesus’ connexion to John should be made to explain this passage, and this whole section. Far from being swept under the rug, which is what you do with embarrassing things, John is being elevated here, to a very dizzying height. We are told he will induce many in Israel–more properly, Judea–to repent of their sins and turn back to God. This is extremely high praise.
A word while we’re on the subject of Israel. Strictly speaking, the Kingdom of Israel ceased to exist after its conquest by Assyria. The successor kingdom, centered on Jerusalem was just that: a successor state. It was assuredly not a continuation of the earlier state of Israel. This latter had remained largely a pagan state, which is why the kings so often did evil in the sight of YHWH. Israel and her kings worshipped other gods because they had not really accepted YHWH as it’s chief–let alone sole–god. And yet, because Israel had been a large state that ruled some of the richer land in the area, the successors in Jerusalem wished to portray themselves as the legitimate heirs of the older kingdom. This is why they elevatated their bandit-in-chief David to the purely mythological throne of the United Kingdom. As such, the kings who sat in Jerusalem maintained their dynastic pretensions for centuries, until “Israel” became a spiritual kingdom inherited by the Christians, or until the State of Israel was resurrected in 1948. Even after all those centuries, the regime in Jerusalem still insisted that the whole of the land from Dan to Beersheba was their heritage. That’s not intended to be anti-Zionist; rather, it’s a commentary on the power of a foundation myth.
One thing I have to comment on is Luke’s vocabulary. It’s pretty remarkable. The man was erudite. He sort of coins a lot of words, by giving older words new forms. I’m not sure what to make of this quite yet; or, rather, I’m not quite sure how to fit this into the overall interpretation of the gospel, but presumably this will work itself out.
14 Et erit gaudium tibi et exsultatio, et multi in nativitate eius gaudebunt:
15 erit enim magnus coram Domino et vinum et siceram non bibet et Spiritu Sancto replebitur adhuc ex utero matris suae
16 et multos filiorum Israel convertet ad Dominum Deum ipsorum.
17 καὶ αὐτὸς προελεύσεται ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ ἐν πνεύματι καὶ δυνάμει Ἠλίου, ἐπιστρέψαι καρδίας πατέρων ἐπὶ τέκνα καὶ ἀπειθεῖς ἐν φρονήσει δικαίων, ἑτοιμάσαι κυρίῳ λαὸν κατεσκευασμένον.
18 Καὶ εἶπεν Ζαχαρίας πρὸς τὸν ἄγγελον, Κατὰ τί γνώσομαι τοῦτο; ἐγὼ γάρ εἰμι πρεσβύτης καὶ ἡ γυνή μου προβεβηκυῖα ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις αὐτῆς.
19 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ ἄγγελος εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ἐγώ εἰμι Γαβριὴλ ὁ παρεστηκὼς ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ, καὶ ἀπεστάλην λαλῆσαι πρὸς σὲ καὶ εὐαγγελίσασθαί σοι ταῦτα:
“And he will go forward before him in the spirit and the power of Elijah, converting hearts of the fathers upon the children and disbelief in the prudence of the just, to have made ready the people of the lord having been prepared. (18) And Zacharias said to the herald, “According to what will I know this? For I am old, and my wife is advanced in years”. (19) And answering the herald said to him, “I am Gabriel the one standing beside in front of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to announce these things to you.
Quick note: the Greek for “announce” in the last sentence is “euangelizai”. This includes the announcing and the glad tidings all in one word. That is impossible in English. Or, I couldn’t come up with a solution, anyway.
Did I mention that, far from being swept under the rug, John was being elevated here? For he will have the spirit and the power of Elijah, and in Jewish circles Elijah was pretty much the pinnacle of human accomplishment. Of course, by elevating John, Jesus will be elevated even further. And here, again, I think, we see an example of Luke following Matthew’s lead, and then expanding upon it. For this is what Matthew did with the announcement of the (unnamed) angel to Joseph: he elevated Jesus to the divine level. Here, (spoiler alert!) not only will we get an announcement to Mary about Jesus, but we get the announcement about Jesus’ forerunner, who could also be called an “angelos”, a “herald”. In this way, Luke raises the playing field even further. We are truly talking about cosmic-scale, divine-level actions here. In a way, it reminds me of the Prologue in Heaven that we find at the opening of Goethe’s Faust, or even the conversation between God and the slanderer (ho diabolos) at the beginning of Job.
As an aside, this is really interesting. In Job 1:6, we are told that
ἦλθον οἱ ἄγγελοι τοῦ θεοῦ παραστῆναι ἐνώπιον τοῦ κυρίου, / καὶ ὁ διάβολος ἦλθεν μετ᾽ αὐτῶν.
There came the angels of God standing beside before the lord, / and the slanderer came with them…
The (very clumsy) expression “standing beside before the lord” is pretty much exactly what we got from Gabriel. The participle is “standing”, but with the prefix for “beside”, so the entire verb is “standing beside”, which is then followed by a preposition for “before”, as in “before the lord”. So the image is a bit of a foreshadow of The Apocalypse of John, with all the elders seated around the throne of God, “before” him in the sense of being in his presence. So the point is that I suspect that Luke deliberately meant to evoke this quote, and I also suspect that it’s something of a standardized formula that appears in various places throughout the LXX, replacing an underlying formula in the Hebrew.
One final note about this quote from Job. Several translations, including the KJV, translate “angeloi” as “sons” of God. There is a good lesson here for not using the same stock word to translate a word in Greek, or Hebrew. In the context, I actually think “sons” might be closer to the sense of the Greek, even if it is a bit more poetic. In fact, the Vulgate renders it as “filii”, which is the standard Latin word for “sons”.
Also, the idea of “standing beside in front of God” is a bit of a foreshadow of some later ideas that will evolve into the Gnostic/Hermetic ideas of the Emanations. The idea that there is a Power at the centre, and then slightly lesser beings around that, spreading out in concentric circles. The Creator is a level–or several, depending on the source–removed from the centre. Yes, this is a bit of a stretch, perhaps, but only a bit. Ideas are fluid things that eddy and swirl about and within each other. And that poetic element should never, ever be forgotten. Because what English so clumsily conveys as “poetry”–a bunch of words strung together that may or may not rhyme–is itself a poor and dulled reflection of the Greek “poesis”. This contains both the idea of doing, as in doing a task, as well as creating a long poem meant to explain the Nature of Things (de Rerum Natura, Epictetus).
And I think Zacharias’ questions to the messenger sort of indicate that the “entreaty” back in Verse 13 was indeed, about a child. I suppose that these questions are natural enough given the news, but we also need to be careful, I think, about reading too much into this. Of course the parallel to Abraham is too obvious to need mention, but then I just did. The conception of Isaac was miraculous, and so is the conception of John. But, while miraculous, they are also human-scale miracles, where the child–the son, always a son–conceived has two human parents.
Finally, just want to stress the idea that this angel has a name. Here we have such a classic example of the growth of legend that it’s worth dwelling on for a moment or two. This is exactly how legends grow. Matthew added the angel, Luje gave the angel a name, and later thinkers would ascribe roles and adventures to the angels. The same happened with the Twelve; once created, they had to have names. Then, once named, they had to have stories and adventures, and so these sprang up, just the way Arthur became surrounded by a host of knights, all of them with their own tale. So this further development of the story is, I firmly believe, another example of how Luke expanded on Matthew’s edifice, which was itself an expansion of the foundation laid by Mark. And here is where the Q people, and the whole Q debate goes so horribly wrong: instead of nitpicking over the order of the placement of the (alleged) Q material, look at the storied told as separate entities that each complement, rather than repeat or supersede the previous one. There is nothing about an angel in the Q material, which starts with the preaching of John. So where did Luke get the idea? Is this parallel development? It could be. But that is where you have to start looking at the numbers of incidents, how many times does Luke pick up a theme from Matthew and run with it? To that end, I’m going to be taking notes. Because one of the big “arguments” (I’m being kind) for Q is that Luke is never aware of Matthew’s additions to Mark. Well, we have an example here of Luke being well aware of an addition of Matthew.
Second finally, the whole idea of finding precedents from the HS is another example. Matthew added references to texts from the HS; Luke appears to be doing the same thing here, borrowing a line from Job (which may also appear elsewhere).
17 Et ipse praecedet ante illum in spiritu et virtute Eliae, ut convertat corda patrum in filios et incredibiles ad prudentiam iustorum, parare Domino plebem perfectam ”.
18 Et dixit Zacharias ad angelum: “ Unde hoc sciam? Ego enim sum senex, et uxor mea processit in diebus suis ”.
19 Et respondens angelus dixit ei: “ Ego sum Gabriel, qui adsto ante Deum, et missus sum loqui ad te et haec tibi evangelizare.
20 καὶ ἰδοὺ ἔσῃ σιωπῶν καὶ μὴ δυνάμενος λαλῆσαι ἄχρι ἧς ἡμέρας γένηται ταῦτα, ἀνθ’ ὧν οὐκ ἐπίστευσας τοῖς λόγοις μου, οἵτινες πληρωθήσονται εἰς τὸν καιρὸν αὐτῶν .
21 Καὶ ἦν ὁ λαὸς προσδοκῶν τὸν Ζαχαρίαν, καὶ ἐθαύμαζον ἐν τῷ χρονίζειν ἐν τῷ ναῷ αὐτόν.
22 ἐξελθὼν δὲ οὐκ ἐδύνατο λαλῆσαι αὐτοῖς, καὶ ἐπέγνωσαν ὅτι ὀπτασίαν ἑώρακεν ἐν τῷ ναῷ: καὶ αὐτὸς ἦν διανεύων αὐτοῖς, καὶ διέμενεν κωφός.
23 καὶ ἐγένετο ὡς ἐπλήσθησαν αἱ ἡμέραι τῆς λειτουργίας αὐτοῦ ἀπῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον αὐτοῦ.
“And behold, may you being silent and not able to speak until the days that these things become, before which not believing the my words, which will be fulfilled in their season (i.e., proper time)”. (21) And there were people expecting Zacharias, and they marveled at the time he being in the Temple. (22) Coming out, he was not able to speak to them, and they knew that a vision he had seen in the temple. And he gestured to them, and he remained mute. (23) And it became as fulfilled the days of his liturgies, he went to his home.
The first thing that strikes me is that God will punish your disbelief. OK. That shouldn’t surprise me, and it doesn’t, but it still strikes me as interesting. That’s the problem with being a rationalist, I suppose. These sorts of actions seem rather arbitrary, or even whimsical; but mainly, they seem rather petty and beneath the dignity of a God that laid the foundations of the cosmos.
The second thing is that this is a very perceptive lot of fellow priests. They knew that he had seen a vision inside. But then, maybe this sort of thing happened frequently? Who’s to say? The word I translated as “liturgies” is actually more or less a transliteration. “Leitourgious” would be the exact translation, so the relation should be obvious. Were I truly a biblical scholar, I would be able to explain the rotation of the priests more effectively, but it’s simply not that important. What matters more is whether his home was in Jerusalem–at least, the Greater Jerusalem Metro Area? I would suspect so. We’ll see if, or how much, this matters in the next section.
20 Et ecce: eris tacens et non poteris loqui usque in diem, quo haec fiant, pro eo quod non credidisti verbis meis, quae implebuntur in tempore suo ”.
21 Et erat plebs exspectans Zachariam, et mirabantur quod tardaret ipse in templo.
22 Egressus autem non poterat loqui ad illos, et cognoverunt quod visionem vidisset in templo; et ipse erat innuens illis et permansit mutus.
23 Et factum est, ut impleti sunt dies officii eius, abiit in domum suam.
It appears that I am hardly the first person to suggest that Matthew began life as a pagan. Apparently there was a school of thought that believed and argued this point back in the 1940s. This is not surprising. I have read some sniffy pieces from biblicists complaining about how Classicists have a tendency to see everything revolving around Greece. And this, in some degree, is what I am doing. In fact, the whole Jesus-as-Jew movement of the last several decades was, doubtless, somewhat in reaction to the Graeco-Roman bias that had existed. Let’s not forget that, for several centuries, an education meant a Classical education. I read once that English schoolboys, on the whole, were more familiar with the characters in Livy (Horatio at the bridge, e.g.) than with their Anglo-Saxon heritage. So the attempts to put Jesus into his Jewish context more or less coincided with the decline in Classical learning that took hold in the 1960s, when “relevant” was the buzzword for eduction.
So, I’m not breaking new ground in suggesting Matthew’s pagan background. Rather, it’s a matter of what goes around, comes around. The great cycle. Honestly, though, I think the over-emphasis on Jesus’ Jewish heritage leaves too many things unexplained. The Baptist was thoroughly Jewish; he was more popular than Jesus; but Western Civilisation became followers of Jesus, not John. Why? I suspect it’s because Jesus’ teaching was more amenable to being absorbed by Greek philosophy, perhaps because it was more steeped in Greek thought than the Baptist’s more simple message of repentance.
No, this isn’t close to the final word on Matthew.
The next destination on our voyage of discovery is the Gospel of Luke. This direction was not inevitable, but for many reasons it seems the best choice. The reason I chose Luke is because of sources. In Luke 1:1-3, he talks about the account handed down to him by the eyewitnesses and the servants. Note that the account is singular, but the eyewitnesses and servants are plural. This means that a single story line was created by multiple witnesses and transmitted by multiple recorders. There is no possibility to know the identity of the former; those who told the story from the time of Jesus are impossible to reconstruct. Two good guesses would be Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. These are the only two names that Paul mentions, and the only two that also occur in the NT. All the others, such as the sons of Zebedee and Andrew and all the rest disappear for several decades, if not forever. The rest are filler, side characters used to bring Jesus out in relief. Let’s face it: what did any of them actually do? Aside from Judas betraying Jesus, none of them are credited with any sort of independent activity, with one exception: the sons of Zebedee arguing about who would be the greatest in heaven. Other than than, basically nothing. Peter plays his role, and Paul attests to James, and a brother of Jesus named James is identified in Mark 6. So Peter and James are the only two eyewitnesses that we can hope to determine.
Do we have any better hope of identifying the “servants” who transmitted the account of the eyewitnesses? We can be reasonably certain of Mark. Luke’s or Matthew’s use of Mark is by no means proven, but there is no theory that explains the Synoptic situation better than that the latter two both knew and used Mark as a source. In a wrinkle, Luke is the first evangelist of whom we can be absolutely certain that he was aware of Paul; at least, we can be certain if the author of Luke is also the author of Acts, which I am going to take on faith. I will be better able to judge that when I actually translate Acts. Now, knowing about Paul’s career is not the same thing as knowing about and having read what Paul wrote. Luke could have known the former without ever having read a word of what Paul wrote. At this point, I’m completely undecided about whether Luke had ever read anything authored by Paul. Regardless, he had a source, or sources, to tell him about Paul’s missionary activities; I am too ignorant at this point to know whether Acts mentions any of the Communities to whom Paul wrote letters. Paul did spend time in Greece in Acts, and that is verified in Galatians and Corinthians. Acts also describes Paul’s time in Ephesus in some detail, but Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is not considered authentically Paul. The overlap of Paul’s adventures in Acts, and the names of the places that received Paul’s letters will possibly provide clues about whether Luke had read any of these letters.
Note: if this were a proper research paper, which it assuredly and vehemently is not, I would have answered some or all of these questions already. But the entire exercise of this blog represents the preliminary research. Reading the works in Greek and translating them provides a much more intimate knowledge of the texts than I would garner from reading them in English, no matter how closely I annotated the texts. So I hope that this explanation of the thought process I use is useful as a how-to for further historical inquiry.
The sources for Paul that Luke encountered may have been written, or they may have been oral. Either way, the question is to what level of detail did they record and relate Paul’s adventures? And “adventures” is a proper description for what Paul experiences in Acts: shipwrecks, angry mobs, last-minute escapes, arrests, these are the stuff of an Indiana Jones movie. In fact, I have come across more than one modern scholar who referred to the similarity between Acts and Hellenistic novels. If you take these adventures and add some of the material that only Luke contains, in particular the material leading up to the public ministry– like the birth narrative–I think that an overall picture of how Luke approaches his gospel and its sequel emerges. When I think about the four evangelists and their different approaches to the narrative of Jesus’ life, I categorize them as such: Mark is a journalist, Matthew is a rabbi (albeit one who converted), John is a theologian, and Luke is a novelist.
Because one serious fault (there are more) I find in biblical scholarship is the failure to ask why each of these evangelists decided to write a gospel. What would possess someone to sit down and write out an account of Jesus’ life? But that’s just a variation on the question of why does anyone write anything? Why am I writing this blog? We write because we believe we have something to say. In the treatment of Mark we discussed some of his motivations: that the Temple had been destroyed, the generation that knew him had died, that there were a number of different interpretations of Jesus’ life and it was necessary to record a story of Jesus in order to preserve the stories and create a single narrative that wove the various traditions–in particular the Wonder-Worker and the Christ traditions–into a unified whole. Matthew’s intent, it seems to me, was to take Mark a step further, to submerge the Wonder-Worker tradition more firmly into the Christ tradition, especially to emphasize Jesus’ divinity and his status as the son of (a) g/God. Why did Luke write? It may seem that, to some degree at least, the answer to this might depend on whether or not Luke knew about Matthew; that knowledge of Matthew might have changed Luke’s motivation, but I don’t think this is true. Because I think Luke approached the topic as one needing to be filled out; and, in a sense, I think this is more true if we assume Luke knew about Matthew. In fact, it may make more sense if Luke knew about Matthew.
Here is where we have to talk about Q. It must always be remembered that there is no argument for Q. No one has ever made a case for its existence. The entirety of the case for Q is that Luke butchered the “masterful” arrangement of the Q material that Matthew created. Thus, the “argument” goes, shows that Luke did not know about Matthew, or the former would never have violated the latter’s organization of the Q material. Please note that this is not an argument. It’s an expression of aesthetic preferences. It’s akin to saying, “I can’t believe Dali butchered Da Vinci’s treatment of the Last Supper so badly”. Or, “I can’t believe Picasso butchered the arrangement of nature by putting both of that woman’s eyes on the same side of her nose”. So Dali obviously never saw Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and Picasso obviously never saw a normal person with only one eye on each side of her nose. That’s ridiculous, but that is the entire gist of the Q argument, and it has been for over a century. The biggest point the Q people make is that Luke always–always!–changes the placement of the material from Mark relative to Matthew. This alteration, I would suggest, is because Luke deliberately set out to tell the story differently from Matthew. Otherwise, why not just copy Matthew, stick in the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son and call it a day? That seems to be what the Q people think should have done. Now, there is no real “argument” for this supposition of mine, but there is no argument for Q, either. At least I’m honest enough to admit what I lack.
This is all very important because it ties in with the “servants” to which Luke alludes in 1:1-3. A combination of Mark and Paul–or sources about Paul, whether written or oral–puts us into plural territory; with just these two we can talk about “servants” who handed over the tradition of the eyewitnesses. So right off the bat, we know that Luke had some kind of source material that was not available to either Mark or Matthew. What about Q? One of my problems with the idea of Q is that it seems very odd that so much of what Jesus taught should have completely bypassed Mark. The early Church put Matthew first and contemporary scholars still value Matthew over the other Synoptics because Matthew seems to have the complete story. It has the Sermon on the Mount, for heavens’ sake! Try to imagine a Christianity based solely on Mark, and what you get is something very different from what we have received. As such, is it possible to imagine a Jesus who did not say, “blessed are the poor in spirit…”? Most of us could not; ergo, Q. But can we imagine a Jesus who did not tell the story of the Prodigal Son? Or the Good Samaritan? Aren’t those such quintessentially Christian stories that the religion would be very different if they were not part of the corpus? If the Sermon on the Mount came from Q, where did the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son originate? Were these part of source material that bypassed both Mark and Matthew? I find it difficult to believe that a written source like Q completely bypassed Mark; I find it impossible to believe something bypassed both Mark and Matthew.
So did Luke invent these magnificent stories? The Q researchers talk about M and L material–stuff that’s unique to Matthew and Luke respectively–and insinuate, if they don’t blatantly claim that this new material is drawn from an earlier source. Never (as far as I know, anyway) is it suggested that maybe Matthew and or Luke wrote the new material themselves. They can’t do this, because that would be to admit that maybe there was no Q, because the Q material was pretty much all composed by Matthew. And that would, in turn, pretty much scuttle the idea of Q, because Matthew was Q. And that would mean that Matthew and Luke are not independent of each other. As I see it, and from the point of view of historical development, it is pretty much impossible to conceive that any of the new material in Luke and John traces back any further than, perhaps the time of Matthew. It is possible that each Luke and John came across a story here or there, or a detail that belonged to a source from an undisturbed community that had maintained something handed down for several generations. It’s possible. But these would be no more than snippets; certainly there would have been nothing like the Prodigal Son nor the Wedding Feast at Cana. Those are later inventions, much later.
To be clear, I do believe that Luke had more than two, or even three sources available to him. Aside from the Paul source and Mark, there was Matthew/Q–which I believe are the same thing. That brings us to three. I believe it highly likely that he had more. We know that new voices of witness continued to be created for several hundred years after the death of Jesus, so there is little reason to think that the time between Matthew and Luke was any exception. Likely the impetus to new creation picked up steam as time passed: witness the number of letters attributed to the “apostles” that came about in the decade either side of the turn of the century, as well as works like the Didache. Most of these sources would have proved ephemeral; or perhaps “preliminary” is a better word. These are the traditions that coalesced into the Didache or the Epistle to the Colossians and later, much later, into the Gospel of Thomas. If I’m willing to concede the existence of other sources available to Luke, why am I so adamantly opposed to Q? That is a legitimate question. The problem with Q is that it is much too important a source to have come into being as a written document, influenced half of the canonical gospels, and then disappear without a trace, a ripple, or the vaguest, most off-hand allusion to its existence. If it was important enough for Matthew and Luke to use it the way they did, it was important enough for someone else to preserve, or at least remember a decade or two later, when the later epistles or the pieces that ended up being non-canonical were being written. But there is absolutely nothing. I’m not sure of the context I read this, but someone raised the question of “Why did Mark survive?” If all, or the vast majority of his material was absorbed by Matthew, as the Q material supposedly was, why did Mark not vanish along with Q? This question is conveniently not asked, so I have no idea what the “correct” responses would be. Based on what happened with Q, Mark should have disappeared without a trace as well.
We are not finished with Q. It will be a source of discussion throughout Luke. It’s a huge topic, but it’s also something of the elephant in the room: no one really wants to discuss it; everyone does want to repeat reassuring phrases that, Yes, Virginia, there is a Q.
There is one final issue to be discussed. Let’s go back to the whole idea of Luke being a novelist. That is a very bold claim on my part, made in the security of knowing that I will never be seriously challenged on it. My point is this: we noted that Paul’s description of his conversion is very different from the more famous version that we all know from Acts; the one that is so famous that the term “Road to Damascus moment” is a cliché in the English language. What I would ask, however, is if they are really so different? Paul tells us he received the gospel through a revelation (Greek: apocalypsos) directly from God. And what happened on the Road to Damascus? Paul was struck from his horse and converted, as through a revelation from God. In short, the version in Acts is a more dramatic, more highly dramatized moment, but the underlying principle is the same: God/Jesus intervened directly in Paul’s life, changing its course forever, turning him into a follower and a missionary and an apostle, as he calls himself. If Luke can transform Paul’s description like that, what other term than “novelist” would fit? Poet? Sure, the story is told in prose. So this is a description that, I think, is not wholly ridiculous.
We shall see.
On to Luke.
Several weeks have passed since I posted the last section on the context of Matthew. Since that time, I’ve gotten back into the Q issue. The good news is that I’ve finally figured out what the actual case for Q is. Or what it isn’t. Or something
The upshot is that I’m going back over my notes, and (re-)reading more stuff by John Kloppenborg, who seems to be one of the most significant proponents of Q. I also feel somewhat responsible for him since he teaches at the University of Toronto, my alma mater. And I think what this is going to do is launch me into Luke. I’d been waffling about what to do next; 2 Corinthians, Romans, Luke, perhaps the Didache. It may end up being Luke.
The benefit of Luke is that he has a lot of stories that make up substantial blocks of text: think Zaccheaus, or The Good Shepherd, or The Prodigal Son, or the Good Samaritan. Such blocks should not require the sort of line-by-line comment that much of Mark and Matthew have. But then, I always think that.
So be prepared for another diatribe on Q.
The beauty of a blog like this is that I can be as self-indulgent about topics like this as I wish. But one hopes that one doesn’t test the patience too much of our gentle readers.
Here’s what I think, where I think Matthew fits in. The early period of development saw a mosaic of different communities. Some of them were organic: they grew up in Jerusalem and Galilee, in places where people had been touched directly by Jesus. The community in Galilee owed a lot to the organization and patronage of Mary the Magdalene. She knew Jesus when the latter was alive, and probably provided some financial support for him and his small crew that included Peter, probably the sons of Zebedee, and maybe James, brother of Jesus. I’ve toyed with the idea that perhaps the Magdalene was married to James, brother of Jesus, but I think that’s unlikely given the way the paths diverged after Jesus’ death. The Magdalene probably followed Jesus into Jerusalem and was there, in some capacity, when Jesus was executed. At which point she returned to Galilee with a significant number of Jesus’ followers. This community was likely responsible for the creation of the Passion Narrative. Perhaps this did not come about immediately, but the tales of being in Jerusalem during the last days of Jesus’ life were told by the group in Galilee, and eventually grew into a story that reached Mark, who probably re-worked it to fit the pro-Roman sympathies of the day. The Galilean community were responsible for the part of the Passion/Resurrection Narrative present in Mark and Matthew that included instructions that the survivors were to return to Galilee. This group did not see Jesus as a divine individual, but he was revered as a wonder-worker who had performed miracles, which was seen as demonstrating Jesus had God’s favour.
Another group grew up in Jerusalem. This, of course, was the community led by James the Just and Peter. If the sons of Zebedee were indeed followers of Jesus, they went back to Galilee with Mary, for they are not part of the landscape for Paul. It’s possible that they did not exist, but their roles are so prominent that I’m loathe to consign them to the dustbin of fiction. But note how they disappear from the scene during the Passion and Resurrection. If these two narratives are the creation of the Galilean community, then chances are that these two were not part of this community. So if they were not part of neither the Galilean nor Jerusalem communities, then where did they fit? Most likely they were part of the community that produced Mark; he features them prominently, and he treats them much better than he treats Peter; so I would suggest that they played an integral part in the foundation of the community to which Mark would subsequently belong, so Mark wrote them into the role of being founding members of Jesus’ inner circle. Note that they do not–most likely, cannot–supplant Peter for pride of place. Peter’s role is apparently too well established to be left out, or even just ignored; he can, however, be slighted, disparaged, and superseded to some degree.
The elevation of Peter comes at the expense of James the Just. Based on Paul’s testimony, I do not think it can be productively argued, or even asserted, that James was not the leader of the Jerusalem Assembly. “The James Gang” as I rather facetiously nicknamed them back when we were reading Galatians. The thing is, Paul’s account is just sufficiently jaundiced to make it highly unlikely that he was making it up. Paul did not particularly like James, and Paul didn’t have a terribly high opinion of Peter, based on the latter’s unwillingness to stand up to James. That James stayed in Jerusalem is one reason I discarded the notion that perhaps it was James who was married to the Magdalene. It’s not impossible that they were married, but parted company, but I would think that such a relationship would have shown up in the Passion Narrative that Mary most likely helped create. At the very least, she prepared the ground for it by telling–and doubtless re-telling–the story of Jesus’ last days. Mark disparages Peter, but he completely omits James the Just, and yet the latter’s reputation persisted to become incorporated into the Gospel of Thomas. Of course, this reputation only “persisted” if the Gospel of Thomas was written later, rather than earlier; but I believe it to date to the second, if not third quarter of the Second Century, based on content and form and other internal evidence.
This puts Mark and James on separate tracks. It has often been pointed out that Mark’s knowledge of the geography of Judea and Galilee & environs is perhaps sketchy at best. I am not qualified to confirm or deny this; I will operate on the belief that there are legitimate reasons for saying this and take the position that the assessment is accurate, largely because I’ve never encountered an argument denying this position. The implication, therefore, is that Mark was most likely separated physically from Jerusalem, and so may not have been aware of the tradition of James. One of the more salient implications of this lack of awareness is that Mark was probably also unaware of Paul. Wherever Mark was–and Rome is not impossible, which some traditions suggest–Paul was not there, and his presence was not known to whatever community it was to which Mark belonged. It was a community that probably owed its origin to the sons of Zebede, who are not mentioned by Paul. In which case, we have to ask–and question–whether these sons were real, or if they were actually close followers of Jesus. It is doubtful that they were disciples ab origine, as Mark and Matthew say, or whether they were participants to any of the great events of Jesus’ career, such as the Transfiguration and the events in Gethsemane. Of course, we have to ask if any of those events actually took place; if we conclude that they didn’t, then of course they did not participate. And Matthew most likely just followed Mark on much of this because he had no reason not to follow Mark.
That takes us back to something said in the commentary to the text. The writing of a gospel by Mark was probably a watershed event for the development of the proto-church for many different reasons. First and maybe foremost–to put this in crass commercial terms of the 21st Century–it was probably a killer app as a marketing tool. Suddenly, you had a complete story of your founder, and you had a consistent story. The fragmentation would slow down considerably; thinking in terms of a river, it’s like being able to keep the main channel strong, thereby preventing the branching into a thousand streams of a delta. This way, someone hearing the story in one town would not go to another and hear a different story. The effect of this would be that the two stories would reinforce each other. Conflicting versions would be reduced, which means that someone new to the story would not find the different versions confusing, leading the potential convert to conclude that the believers simply didn’t know what they were talking about, leading her to return to the worship of Isis. Tied to this, a written story is very portable and so exportable. Yes, manuscripts were time-consuming to produce, but the fact of the matter is that Mark isn’t that long, so it could be copied and then read to many, many new people.
This, in my opinion, is why the gospels took precedence over Paul’s letters. These latter were not really intended for general circulation; they were written to specific groups to address specific circumstances. Mark’s gospel, OTOH, was general and universal. It set the tone and the outlines, digging the primary channel in which the main stream of the river would flow from that point forward. At root, the Jesus of Mark was the wonder-worker who told parables about the kingdom. The latter was neither fully nor effectively explained. Maybe this was to de-emphasize Jesus’ connexion to the Baptist; or maybe it was designed to prove Jesus’ connexion to the Baptist. In this latter case, perhaps Mark, writing from a physical as well as temporal distance, did not really understand what the Baptist had actually meant by the kingdom, thereby causing Mark to leave this part of Jesus teaching rather vague and undeveloped.
With all this, Mark was not a complete story. Far from it. Many details were missing. Being aware of this, Matthew set out to correct these deficiencies. First thing was to give Jesus a father, thereby to reduce the charges that Jesus was a bastard. Mark does not know–indeed, he does not care–who Jesus’ human father was. For Mark, Jesus was a man whom God chose at the moment when he was baptised by John. Then, and only then, he became “my son”, as God declared from the heavens. To compound the problem, Mark later calls Jesus the son of Mary (Ch 6). So Matthew has to set the record straight. So he provides Jesus with an earthly father, but goes further to provide Jesus with that most important of documents of legitimacy: a pedigree. Not only was Jesus given an earthly father, he was given a royal lineage. This provided an enormous boost to Jesus’ credibility. Jesus was not some nobody; he was the descendent of the Judahite king David (who had pretensions, however illegitimate, to the throne of Israel). This was a brilliant stroke, because it gave legitimacy to Jesus’ heritage, but also to the claim of being the Christ, the Anointed, the Messiah. This aspect of Jesus’ identity had become grafted, however imperfectly and incompletely, onto Mark’s story. This was not nearly enough for Matthew.
Aside from making it clear that Jesus was not a bastard, Matthew decided to take this all to a truly cosmic level, to demonstrate that Jesus’ birth was an event of universal significance. We are so inured to the story of the Star of Bethlehem* that I am not sure that we don’t quite grasp the enormity of this concept. Jesus was so important that the stars themselves aligned to announce his birth. That is to say, that his birth was destined from the beginning of time, so that it was written into the course of the heavens. Now, as the descendants and intellectual heirs of a millennium of absolutist philosophical thinking, we are sort of accustomed to this sort of thing, and we don’t get what it all means. To anyone of Matthew’s day, none of this would have been lost. The idea that Jesus had a star, and that it was read and understood by magoi from further east. Just so we’re clear, a magos–plural magoi, in Latin magi–was, at root, an astrologer. They were “wise” because they could read the secret language of the stars. The point to take from the episode of the Magi is that this was written before the idea of God that we take for granted did not permeate the popular conception of God to the degree it does today. God’s response to Job was, “where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?”; Paul tells us he was selected from the time he was in his mother’s womb, and talks about God laying the foundations of the cosmos, but there is not the sense of God setting out the course of things from The Beginning. This is not a Jewish conception, nor does it fit with the attitude of Free Will that took root in the thinking of the Patristic thinkers. No, what Matthew is describing is, at root, pagan Fatalism. Just as the course of the planets is fixed, so the course of history is fixed. We are allotted our role, our fate is determined, and we play out the string fundamentally unable to do anything about it.
Looking back on this now I see this is as a very big clue about Matthew’s origins. After checking to see what I said at the time, I hadn’t picked up on it then because I had not begun to piece together the bits of evidence that Matthew began life as a pagan, rather than as a Jew. After all, everyone agrees that Matthew is the most Jewish of the evangelists, and it’s widely assumed that Luke was the only pagan among the evangelists. It’s taken on faith. But having picked up on a number of other clues, the whole theme of the Star of Bethlehem is like a big, blinking neon sign that says “PAGAN !!! “. The Jews were anti-astrology, and this attitude carried over to the early Church. Astrology, and its concomitant concept of ineluctable Fate was disparaged by both Jews and strict Christians as pagan, and the latter saw it as inexorably opposed to, and completely incompatible to the idea of Free Will. So the idea of an astrological event announcing the birth of the Christian Saviour is ironic in the extreme. It’s ironic to the point of contradictory. It’s contradictory to the point that it almost seems to be the final piece of evidence necessary to prove definitively that Matthew was not raised as a Jew. Of course, most biblical scholars and clergy will doubtless disagree with me, and vehemently, and vigourously deny that Matthew was a pagan, and vociferously assert that this motif of the Star and the astrologers even suggests such a ridiculous idea, let alone proving it.
A bit of research has turned up various thoughts and interpretations of the star and of the “wise men”. Overall, there is a concerted effort to play down the role of the magoi/magi as astrologers. One recent commentator even puts the word “astrologers” in quotes, as if to sniff away the idea as preposterous. Of course, there are all of the attempts to explain this as a comet, or a supernova, or some such occurrence based on the science of astronomy. Of course, these attempts miss the point, and really need not concern us; at the moment, we are concerned with how the star is explained by biblical scholars, not astronomers. The former want to play down the role of astrology because, even today, good Christians are at least uncomfortable with, if not overtly hostile to, the notion of astrology. But the point remains that this is the base meaning of magos/magus. Like the Nile, the rivers of Mesopotamia flood each year, and being able to predict the timing of the flood was very important for agriculture. The floods are seasonal, and the seasons are related to the movement of the earth around the sun. So the sky provided a very reliable calendar, if one knew how to read it. Here is the birth of both what we call astronomy and astrology; the thinking was that if the sun and stars all determined when the rivers would flood, then of course they have significant influence over mere humans, too. So it’s very important to realize that there was no difference between the two until the later 1500. Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and other founders of astronomy were really doing what we would call astronomy. Kepler was trying to figure out the length of time the various planets “stayed” in a given constellation of the Zodiac when he discovered his Laws of Planetary Motion.
So, all in all, the use of the Star is, I think, a fairly strong indication that Matthew was a pagan.
to be continued…
* By happenstance or coincidence or divine intervention, I’ve been writing about the Star of Bethlehem on the 24th and 25th of December. Of course, we got Luke and the shepherd who were “sore afraid” (at least in the KJV) rather than Matthew for the gospel.
The very long gospel of Matthew concludes with a very short Resurrection Story. At least, the story is short by comparison with the rest of the gospel, and compared to the stories that will follow in Luke and John. Immediately this should alert us that the idea of a Resurrection story was not well-developed when Matthew wrote. The need for it was understood, but the creative wheels had not been turning very long, so the elaborations that will come with Luke and John had not evolved. It had been recognized that Mark’s story was not enough, but there had not been sufficient time for a “grass roots” oral tradition with a number of takes and characters to spring up and become incorporated into the main body of the literary tradition created by Mark and extended by Matthew.
This, I believe, is significant. It tells us that the Resurrection story came along late, despite Paul’s insistence on the risen Jesus. This, in turn, implies that Paul’s message of the risen Jesus had not truly disseminated, or permeated, or dispersed throughout the all of the various communities of Jesus’ followers. This means that, for nearly two generations, there were “Christians” (proto-Christians, anyway) who did not necessarily believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Here, I think, is where we connect with the wonder-worker tradition that was so strong in Mark. This tradition carried on, but had come under increasing pressure, especially after Mark wrote his gospel. There the wonder-worker tradition was acknowledged, and even honored, but it was starting to become submerged under the Christ tradition. But note that, in Mark, the Christ tradition did not yet include a Resurrection Story. It ended with the crucifixion, and, perhaps, the empty tomb. It is difficult to know how much of the section after Jesus’ burial was original to Mark, and how much was added later, in light of these later developments. Yes, real Christian biblical scholars, or even biblical scholars who have come out of the Christian tradition of textual analysis based on the assumption that the four gospels are telling a single story will find this contention of additions to Mark to be difficult, if not impossible, to accept.
One reason for this reluctance is easy to identify: Paul. He wrote before all of them, and his message was based on, and had as its primary focus the risen Jesus. He had temporal precedence. Given that, how could something written later still be uncertain about, or completely fail to mention that Jesus had been raised? How indeed? That question is good, but it’s not hard to answer, not even requiring much in the way of contortions or mental gymnastics. Paul and his message formed a separate tradition, one distinct from the wonder worker tradition. The latter had become aware of the Christ tradition, but the Christ tradition did not necessarily include a risen Jesus. After all, the anointed in Jewish thought was not a divine individual, but a “son of man”. It’s very tempting to see this as the “other” gospel that gets Paul so incensed when he finds that the “foolish”, or even “stupid” Galatians have fallen away from Paul’s message and been seduced by this other teaching. Paul tells us that he and James, brother of the lord, disagreed on dietary restrictions; were there other, more fundamental disagreements as well? Such as the risen Jesus? Paul would have had a very strong motive for “forgetting” about this part of the disagreement. Why would he tell his audience that he disagreed with the brother of the lord about whether the lord had been raised from the dead? To admit that such a disagreement existed, and that the brother of the lord and the nominal head of the Jerusalem assembly did not believe in the risen lord would have caused Paul some serious PR problems.
Of course, in 1 Corinthians Paul tells us how Jesus had appeared to James and Peter and the 500. But was this factual? Or was this another of Paul’s revelations? Bear in mind that Paul did not spend a lot of time hanging out in Jerusalem, no doubt in part because he and James did not agree on certain matters. Yes, Paul could have been told about how Jesus had appeared to the others, but then again, maybe not. Because let’s note that Jesus does not necessarily appear to anyone in Mark’s version. So fifteen or twenty years after Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, the Resurrection story, with its details about how Jesus appeared to his disciples was not really and completely woven into the fabric of the teachings of Jesus’ followers.
Matthew, we have seen, or at least I have suggested, set out to “correct” the record. He intended to fill in the gaps in Mark’s account, with the latter’s paucity of teachings. In Mark, Jesus worked a lot of wonders and told a few parables, but not a lot more than that. Matthew adds verse after verse of Jesus speaking; most of Chapters 5-8 is taken up with Jesus speaking. If you have a red-letter edition, you can see that page after page is almost entirely red, perhaps with a few sentences in black to provide some sort of context. And yet, even Matthew is not fully on-board with the Resurrection story. This chapter is very short compared to most; a scant twenty verses. It has the feel of a sort of hurried summary, a quick round-up. Yes, Matthew includes it, but it sorely lacks in detail. Think about what is to come in Luke and John, and then the scantiness of Matthew’s Resurrection story becomes very noticeable. The conclusion is that this most central piece of Christian theology was largely missing for about two generations.
The other piece to take from this chapter, I believe, is the story of the women. Mary the Magdalene is the primary character, in some ways, of the burial and Resurrection narratives. Why does Jesus appear to her before almost anyone else in the story? She essentially comes out of nowhere, showing up at the foot of the cross, and then jumps directly into a leading role. This is odd. I also suspect it has to do with what she did after the death of Jesus. The most plausible explanation is that she became, if she wasn’t before, a financial supporter of the group. As such, she was rewarded with the publicity of becoming a central figure in the drama of the burial and resurrection.
Sort of corollary to the story of the Magdalene, and her role in the Resurrection narrative is the lack of emphasis on the disciples. Aside from Peter, they sort of vanish with after the Last Supper and the arrest in Gethsemane. What happened to them? They don’t reappear until Luke, really, and then a bit more emphatically in John, with the locked room and Thomas and all of that. Even the sons of Zebedee are nowhere to be found, even though their mother is at the cross with the Magdalene. Why is that? Largely, I suspect, because they were never really all that central to the story. Aside from Peter, James, and John, who among the disciples has any role in anything that Jesus did? None of them. Or, at least, none of them until Judas surfaces in the Passion narrative to serve as the foil and the villain. The implication of all of this is that there was no large group of disciples, and there certainly was no Twelve, at least during Jesus’ lifetime. Otherwise, the disciples were not really all that important to the whole mission, which is why they can simply disappear from the story, at least until they are “resurrected” by Luke, and even more so, by John.
This summary is going to be short, in part because the chapter is short. There are further lessons to be drawn, but they relate more to the gospel as a whole rather than to just the chapter. So, we’ll sign off and start ruminating on what we lessons we need to derive from the gospel as a whole.
During the course of the two gospels, we’ve touched on the book by Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life And Times Of Jesus Of Nazareth. In that book, Aslan claims that Jesus was indeed a zealot, and that he was crucified for his rebellious activities. Two key props for his argument are that crucifixion was reserved for rebels, and that the word used to describe the two men crucified with Jesus << lestes >> specifically meant rebel.
At this point I have not done a summary view of all records of crucifixion, and have not performed a statistical analysis on the reasons why the Romans crucified these people. A famous example is the mass crucifixion of thousands of rebels following the suppression of the rebellion of Spartacus. Certainly, these men were rebels, and they were crucified in punishment. But saying only rebels were crucified is a bit of a black swan argument: no number of examples of white swans can prove that black swans don’t exist; one black swan, however, proves that they do. So, no number of crucified rebels will prove that only rebels were crucified, but even a handful of non-rebels will prove that this punishment was not reserved for this class of individuals.
The other argument he uses is that the word “lestes” specifically means ‘rebel’. Liddell and Scott, who have to be considered THE authoritative source for Greek vocabulary, disagree. So do Lewis and Short, who hold the same position for Latin vocabulary. In the Vulgate translation of this section, St Jerome translated “lestes” as “latro, latronis“*. As I have mentioned before, given that the sample size of Latin texts is much larger than that of Greek texts, seeing how the Vulgate renders a specific word can give us some clues to the meaning of the underlying Greek word, especially if the latter is rarely used. Now, the Greek word “lestes” is not terribly unusual, but I think it is still useful to see how it gets translated into Latin by St Jerome. Bear in mind that Jerome was bilingual; he was adept in Greek, even if Latin was his primary language. What word does he use?
First, I also want to point out that we have the episode of the Cleansing of the Temple to consider. Recall the “den of thieves” declamation used by Jesus? Well, the word there is “lestes“, the same word as is used of the two men crucified with Jesus. To the best of my knowledge, this passage has never been translated as “den of insurrectionists”. So this alone is almost a mortal wound to Aslan’s argument. And again, the Vulgate renders the Greek with the Latin word “latro, latronis”.
The final nail in the coffin is provided by the Latin author Apuleius. He wrote, among other things, a work called Metamorphoses, a Greek word that got taken wholesale into Latin via transliteration. It means pretty much what it does in English: a change in shape. In the Penguin edition that I have, the title is rendered as The Golden Ass, because the main action of the book involves the adventures of the main character after he has been magically, and mistakenly, transformed from a person into a donkey. In any case, shortly after his transformation, he is stolen by some bandits, who use him to haul away stolen goods. The word used? Latro, latronis. This example is even more useful than the Vulgate because it was written in the Second Century, much closer to Matthew than it was to the Vulgate. So we can have a substantial level of certainty that the word had not changed, had not undergone a metamorphosis, coming to mean simply “bandit/thief” whereas in NT times it had meant rebel.
As of this writing, I have no idea how Aslan’s book has been received in circles of biblical scholarship. I don’t know if it has been thoroughly refuted and rejected by most biblical academics. I do know, however, that it has seeped into popular consciousness. I recently had a Facebook debate with someone who put Aslan’s thesis forward as accepted fact. This is truly unfortunate. It’s also pretty much dead wrong. If this thesis has been absorbed into biblical scholarship, I despair of it even more than I did before.
* The base meaning of “latro, latronis” is “mercenary soldier”. From there it turned into “freebooter”; unpaid mercenaries had a tendency to extract their arrears of wages by plundering whomever was unfortunate enough to be at hand. This tradition was alive and well during the Thirty Years War. From there, it came to be “robber”. “bandit”, “thief”. These words are not completely interchangeable, but close enough. In particular, “bandit” has the sense of a group of outlaws living in desolate places where they’re hard to find, preying on unsuspecting travelers. Aslan tries to suggest that such bandits were actually insurrectionists, but that is simply stretching the word past its breaking point,
This section concludes the chapter and the entire Gospel of Matthew. It’s been a very long, but not too strange, trip.
11 Πορευομένων δὲ αὐτῶν ἰδού τινες τῆς κουστωδίας ἐλθόντες εἰς τὴν πόλιν ἀπήγγειλαν τοῖς ἀρχιερεῦσιν ἅπαντα τὰ γενόμενα.
12 καὶ συναχθέντες μετὰ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων συμβούλιόν τε λαβόντες ἀργύρια ἱκανὰ ἔδωκαν τοῖς στρατιώταις
13 λέγοντες, Εἴπατε ὅτι Οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ νυκτὸς ἐλθόντες ἔκλεψαν αὐτὸν ἡμῶν κοιμωμένων.
14 καὶ ἐὰν ἀκουσθῇ τοῦτο ἐπὶ τοῦ ἡγεμόνος, ἡμεῖς πείσομεν [αὐτὸν] καὶ ὑμᾶς ἀμερίμνους ποιήσομεν.
15 οἱ δὲ λαβόντες τὰ ἀργύρια ἐποίησαν ὡς ἐδιδάχθησαν. Καὶ διεφημίσθη ὁ λόγος οὗτος παρὰ Ἰουδαίοις μέχρι τῆς σήμερον [ἡμέρας].
Going toward away, look! some of the guards coming to the city they announced to the high priests all the occurrences. (12) And gathering with the high priests they took counsel taking money because they gave to the soldiers, (13) saying, “Say that his disciples coming in the night stole him we being sleeping. (14) And if this was heard by the leader, we persuade him and we make you careful.” (15) They taking the money they did as they were taught. And this story was blazed out throughout Judea until this very day.
The translation is way too literal. The upshot is that the high priests paid the guards to tell a false story. The interesting part is that, supposedly, the story was being told even to the time that Matthew wrote. Really? I’m not sure whether to pooh-pooh the idea that they were still talking about it, or to take it as “hmmm…” moment. Having just said what I said about Matthew not being likely to have new, actual historical information, I would have nerve saying that this was true. And, indeed, my initial reaction is that this is something that Matthew sort of made up. But then, why? Why would he make this up? Seems a tad improbable, but, seriously, why make this up? Why suggest that there is an alternative story out there? Doesn’t the probability lean to the side of Matthew saying this as a way of explaining, and hopefully refuting something that was out there? To refute something that people were actually saying?
Thinking about this further now that it’s had time to settle in, this little throw-away line may have huge ramifications for a lot of things. Let’s unpack this a bit. Mark gave no indication of a story like this, but then Mark didn’t really have a resurrection story. What this suggests is that the whole idea of the resurrection, and the story explaining it, only fully came into existence Mark, and before Matthew. This set of circumstances would make sense when taken in conjunction with my previous point about the writing of Mark being something of a watershed in the development of the Jesus movement. Having a written gospel spread the word more effectively, but perhaps it also caused people to ask questions, like, why was the tomb empty? What did happen to Jesus’ body? Which would lead others, less sympathetic to the cause, to suggest that the body had been stolen by his disciples. Refuting this, in turn, could have been one of the spurs that prompted Matthew to write his gospel in the first place.
Of course, so far we’ve ignored an obvious point: that Paul was talking about the resurrection long before Mark wrote his gospel. Not only is that a valid point, but it’s salient as well (a salient point is redundant). If I’m going to suggest that the resurrection story didn’t come about until after Mark, what about Paul’s preaching on this subject? I’d best have one damn good explanation for that.
This make take us back to the question of whether Mark was aware of Paul. To be honest, I am not aware of the scholarship on this, but it is entirely possible that Mark was not. If not, he could have written his gospel without knowing that Paul claimed Jesus had been raised from the dead. But then, to whom did Paul preach? To pagans. Matthew, as I see it, was a pagan and not a Jew. So did he become aware of Paul’s teaching about the resurrection from contact with a pagan church that had been influenced, if not founded, by Paul’s mission work? What I am proposing is that there were two separate traditions; indeed, there were likely, but I’m thinking of two main branches here, with however many tributaries and however fragmented the delta was. I’m suggesting that there was a Jewish tradition and a pagan tradition. Indeed, this may be a commonplace; Paul tells us that exactly this situation existed in Galatians, so it’s hardly like this is a radical suggestion. He and James were at loggerheads about the Jewish question, but what if there were other, more fundamental differences of opinion between the two? What if the Jewish tradition wasn’t big on the idea of the raising from the dead? Or, Paul was a Pharisee, who believed in this before encountering the teachings about Jesus; was James a Pharisee? Is that part of the reason the Pharisees get such special treatment in the gospels? Because the Jewish tradition didn’t agree with the Pharisees? But then Matthew, not being a Jew, really didn’t get the whole reason for the division, so he just kept up the disparagement of the Pharisees without realizing the implications?
There are a lot of pieces that seem to fit. The problem is, each piece makes the overall whole less likely, not more so. The more complicated the story, the less likely it is to be true. This would seem to be counterintuitive, but if you think in terms of contingent probabilities–C is only true if B is true, and B is only true if A is true–you may see the problem. Each piece depends on another, and each connexion represents a potential fracture point, a place where the joint is weak and the glue holding it all together can come unstuck.
11 Quae cum abiissent, ecce quidam de custodia venerunt in civitatem et nuntiaverunt principibus sacerdotum omnia, quae facta fuerant.
12 Et congregati cum senioribus, consilio accepto, pecuniam copiosam dederunt militibus
13 dicentes: “Dicite: “Discipuli eius nocte venerunt et furati sunt eum, nobis dormientibus”.
14 Et si hoc auditum fuerit a praeside, nos suadebimus ei et securos vos faciemus”.
15 At illi, accepta pecunia, fecerunt, sicut erant docti. Et divulgatum est verbum istud apud Iudaeos usque in hodiernum diem.
16 Οἱ δὲ ἕνδεκα μαθηταὶ ἐπορεύθησαν εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν εἰς τὸ ὄρος οὗ ἐτάξατο αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς,
17 καὶ ἰδόντες αὐτὸν προσεκύνησαν, οἱ δὲ ἐδίστασαν.
18 καὶ προσελθὼν ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐλάλησεν αὐτοῖς λέγων, Ἐδόθη μοι πᾶσα ἐξουσία ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ [τῆς] γῆς.
19 πορευθέντες οὖν μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, βαπτίζοντες αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος,
20 διδάσκοντες αὐτοὺς τηρεῖν πάντα ὅσα ἐνετειλάμην ὑμῖν: καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ μεθ’ ὑμῶν εἰμι πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας ἕως τῆς συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος.
But the eleven disciples went out to Galilee to the mountain where Jesus arranged for them, (17) and seeing they worshipped him but they doubted. (18) And coming forward Jesus spoke to them saying, “It was given to me all power in the sky and upon the earth. (19) So going going out all the peoples were learned, baptizing them in the name of the father and the son and the sacred breath. (20) Teaching them to watch all so much I command you. And, look! I with you I am all days until the end of the aeons”.
So that’s it. It occurs to me that until now I’m not terribly familiar with this gospel, or at least this version of the resurrection story. To whit, they actually do go to Galilee, something of which I had not been aware, largely because this version of the Resurrection is not read all that often. One salient feature is that this whole going to Galilee was rather an ephemeral phenomenon. After Matthew, it vanishes from sight. Of the four stories, I believe that this one gets the least attention. Mark is the first, Luke is the most well-known for the same reasons we think of his nativity story in preference to Matthew’s story, which is the only alternative version.
So what happened? Not only did the idea of going to Galilee sort of fade, it faded to the point that a lot of people are not really aware of it; or is it just me? One obvious answer to that questions is that the focus of the growing movement shifted away from Galilee and towards Jerusalem. Mark had the bit about Galilee, and Matthew followed him on that. But note that it’s like Matthew wasn’t really sure what happened in Galilee. We get Jesus sending out his disciples, so this passage has been called the Great Commission, but if it’s so great, why did Luke forget about it? Luke probably didn’t. Rather more likely is that the tradition of the church had turned towards Jerusalem, so Luke corrected Matthew to reflect this. Remember that Luke is the first evangelist who was undeniably aware of Paul; before Luke, we can’t be sure. And Paul tells us that the focus of the Jesus community after Jesus’ death was in Jerusalem, and not in Galilee; is that why Luke moved the action there? Remember, too, that Luke is the first–and only–writer to tell the stories of both the Ascension and Pentecost, the latter of which took place in Jerusalem. Then John splits the difference, and has part of Jesus’ post-resurrection career occur in Jerusalem, but then it moves back to Galilee. So there was, apparently, a pretty strong tradition tying the post-resurrection Jesus back to Galilee.
Why? Because it makes sense that people from Galilee would return there after the trauma of the loss of Jesus. But even more convincing, I think, are all the boring, mundane reasons: that’s where there homes and family and source of livelihood were. Jerusalem was a big city, and cities then, as now, are expensive. So sure, they returned to Galilee. Now here’s a thought: we’ve noted that the Magdalene appears during the Passion Story, and plays a prominent part in the Resurrection story. Perhaps this is because she provided sponsorship of the disciples–in Galilee. She would not be the first patron(ess) to get herself written into the story due to reasons of financial support. Perhaps her role did not come into prominence until after Jesus’ death. That would very nicely explain why she shows up in the narrative in the events surrounding Jesus’ death. It would also be a strong prima facie case to suggest that the Passion Narrative may have originated in the Galilean community. That is a thought that needs further consideration.
So that’s a bit of an eye-opener, I must say. And shame on me for not realizing this sooner than now. But then, this was intended as a voyage of discovery.
As for the Great Commission, the very last words of the gospel, there are a couple of points to be made. The first, of course, is that the event is a post-facto fiction, meant to explain from a point forty years after what happened in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death. It’s a foundation myth. The interesting inference that we, perhaps, can draw from this is that it suggests leadership of the community became situated in Galilee, when we know differently from Paul. What this implies, I believe, is that there was a period stretching most likely from the Destruction to the time of Luke, a period that includes Matthew, when the leadership of James, centered in Jerusalem, was either being suppressed or had largely been forgotten. Now, given Matthew’s desire to play up Jesus’ divinity, and the way he inversely downplayed the brothers of Jesus related in Mark, it’s not difficult to imagine that he may have known about the Jerusalem Community, at least to the point of being vaguely aware that it had existed; such minimal awareness, however, would have led to Matthew’s lack of value for James and his group almost as effectively as not knowing about it altogether, So I suspect Matthew did have some minimal knowledge about James, but not nearly enough for Matthew to value the role of James.
Perhaps the final point about the Great Commission is its emphasis on teaching the peoples, the non-Jews. I won’t use the term “gentile” because it does appear in either the Greek or the Latin; I’m not sure of the etymology–but I suspect it derives from the Latin gens, gentis, “peoples”, which is used in the Latin translation below. This is yet another indicator that this part of the story was created very much later than the life of Jesus, and probably even later than Mark. The first evangelist does have a few references to Jesus’ preaching to non-Jews; there is the Syro-Phoenician woman outside Tyre, for example, but the message has become much more prominent in Matthew. Think of the story of the centurion who does not believe himself worthy for Jesus to enter his home. References to non-Jews and their role in the kingdom (The Wedding Banquet; the invited guests won’t come) come early and often in Matthew. This Great Commission is the finishing touch, the pìece de résistance for this transfer of the center of gravity from Jews to pagans. Jesus himself ordained it so.
That’s it. It feels like there should be some grand words of conclusion here, but those will be saved for the summary. Thank you for your patience.
16 Undecim autem discipuli abierunt in Galilaeam, in montem ubi constituerat illis Iesus,
17 et videntes eum adoraverunt; quidam autem dubitaverunt.
18 Et accedens Iesus locutus est eis dicens: “Data est mihi omnis potestas in caelo et in terra.
19 Euntes ergo docete omnes gentes, baptizantes eos in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti,
20 docentes eos servare omnia, quaecumque mandavi vobis. Et ecce ego vobiscum sum omnibus diebus usque ad consummationem saeculi”.