Category Archives: Summary
Supposedly, this chapter is about Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, which takes up nearly the entire chapter. In actual fact, however, the theme of this chapter is Q. So much of the Q debate is taken up by the sheer brilliance of the Sermon on the Mount, that we are forced to compare Luke’s Sermon on the Plain to that other masterpiece. It has been decreed that this version of the Q material preserves a more primitive version of Q, and that this version is decidedly inferior. Those statements are not to be gainsaid if one wishes to be included in polite company of NT scholars. Well, the problem is that I’m not an NT scholar (or, I suppose, a scholar of any sort, except maybe a wannabe…), so I’ll likely never be invited into polite company, anyway, so I can throw a few bricks, or, with luck, start a food fight. It’s time we talked about the content of the two gospels.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Matthew says they went up the mountain. Luke says they went up the mountain, but came back down, and then he stresses that he began speaking on a plain. Luke does not sort of drift off, leaving it vague; he very specifically says “a level place”. So which is the original? Remember, Luke supposedly preserves the more primitive version of Q, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Oh, right, alternating primitivity. Either way, if this came from Q, Luke had to decide to bring Jesus down from the mountain and stand in a level place. Why does he do this? Why not leave him on the mountain? Or did Luke make the change exactly because Matthew had Jesus on the mountain? Is this the emergence of the puckish humor of Luke? That he’s sort of tweaking Matthew a bit? We mentioned that in the penultimate section, in which Luke launched into a stream of unusual words that are not found in Matthew, and very few other places as far as that goes.
But there’s even a more basic question. The Gospel of Thomas is a sayings gospel. Its discovery was hailed as a vindication of the Q thesis, demonstrating that sayings gospels were, indeed, written. Since it was a sayings gospel, it was immediately declared to be very early, tracing back to Jesus himself (perhaps), and proving that Q could exist, which basically meant Thomas was taken to prove that Q did exist. But Thomas has one striking dissimilarity to Q, as reconstructed. Thomas has no physical descriptions of place or action. Pretty much everything starts with “Jesus said…” And yet, the reconstructed Q is full of all sorts of physical descriptions and settings in place such as the “up/down the mountain”. Thomas does not have stuff from the Baptist. It doesn’t talk about centurions. It is, truly, what we would expect of a “sayings” gospel. Reconstructed Q, on the other hand, simply is not. There is stuff from the Baptist, and physical description. And there is so much of this that those doing the reconstructing were more or less forced to say that it all came from Q. Otherwise, how to explain the overlaps? It’s impossible to do so without either putting this extraneous stuff in Q, or admitting that Luke read Matthew. Since the latter has to be rejected on ideological grounds, the former is the only choice.
The upshot, right from the start, we have a pretty good indication that Luke was, indeed, aware of Matthew. He was aware that Matthew’s sermon was on a mountain, so Luke put his on a level place. Why? The Q people say I have to explain every deviation from Matthew in a manner that is supported by a consistent editorial attitude. So I posit mine to be puckish humor. That suggestion comes with a guarantee of originality, that you will not find that in the, ahem, serious literature. And I don’t mean to be flippant or facetious. My suggestion is entirely serious, if only to show the range of interpretation that is possible in these situations. “Deadly serious” is not the only setting for discussion, just because it’s the default setting. I’m going to continue to look for this humourous edge throughout the gospel. Let’s see how that stands up to scrutiny.
So Matthew has the primitive “up the mountain”, but Luke has the primitive version of the first Beatitude. Matthew’s poor are poor in spirit; Luke’s are just poor. This is not a matter of primitive vs developed. It’s a situation in which each evangelist is saying a very different thing. Puckish humor again? Perhaps a bit more wry this time, with a bit of an edge. “Poor in spirit” is all very fine and good, but what about those who are just poor? And not only do they hunger and thirst for justice, they’re just damn hungry. Yes, this is more primitive, if by that you mean the more pointedly addressing fundamental needs. Why do they hunger for justice? Because they’re poor, really poor, and not just “poor in spirit”. Being poor in spirit almost implies that they are not poor in actuality, that we are not discussing physical privation, but sort of a moral discomfort. So yes, it is quite easy to say that Luke is more primitive, but he’s also more righteous.
There is one more aspect of “primitivity” that sorely needs to be addressed. The idea that one version or the other is more primitive completely begs the question. It assumes that there is a total of three versions; one is original, and the other two are derivative. Ergo, one of the derivatives is more primitive than the other. But if there is no third version, to say that Matthew or Luke is more primitive becomes meaningless. In all cases, Matthew is the more “primitive” because it was written most of a generation earlier. So discussing primitivity is meaningless absent Q; discussing primitivity assumes the existence of Q, which is what we’re trying to determine, whether Q existed or not. By shifting the battleground to discussions of primitivity, the Q people have already won the debate since we’re now taking Q as given. This is admittedly deft rhetoric, but it’s also bad logic.
There’s another aspect of Q that never gets discussed. This has to do with the actual content of the sayings. Do they truly seem appropriate to the time in which they were, supposedly, uttered? Or do they make more sense to a later time and place? If the latter, what does that do to the idea of Q? Especially if these anachronisms are repeated in both Matthew and Luke? That really puts a crimp into the supporting pillars of the Q position. I keep coming back to what Q is supposed to be: a collection of sayings that predate Mark and presumably Paul and trace back to Jesus, usually by way of one of his close associates. The list of eligible associates is probably limited to Peter, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee. They perhaps did not write the sayings themselves, but they remembered them and dictated them to a scribe. From this list we can strike Peter, because he was John Mark’s source for the first gospel to be written. According to church tradition, Mark the Evangelist was John Mark, the associate of Paul. Mark went to Rome and became part of Peter’s community, and Peter provided the information for Mark’s gospel. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: Mark’s gospel does not include any of the so-called Q material. This means one of several things, the most likely of which is that the entire tradition is a later fabrication. Either John Mark was not Mark the Evangelist, or Peter never went to Rome or whatever, but wherever Mark got his material for the gospel, it likely did not come from an eyewitness to Jesus because the source, or sources, were completely ignorant of most of the really important stuff that Jesus said. This ignorance, in turn, is predicated on the data that Q existed and that it is an accurate record of what Jesus actually said. The result is that there is a gaping hole in the explanation provided; it then becomes a question of figuring out the most likely location of that hole.
This leaves us with a couple of choices: either Mark’s gospel did not derive from an eyewitness account, or Jesus didn’t say the things in Q. There are others, such as that Mark chose not to include Jesus’ teachings; however, that strikes me as a bit unlikely. Why on earth would Mark’s source not tell Mark what Jesus taught, or why would Mark deliberately choose to leave this stuff out of the gospel? I would really like to hear someone try to explain that one.
Another consideration is whether the things Q says Jesus said make sense for Jesus’ time. We touched on this in the commentary, in verses 22 & 23, in which they are blessed who are reviled for Jesus’ sake. These seem to be references to some sort of “persecution” of the followers of Jesus. As pointed out, there is no indication in any of the gospel accounts that Jesus or his followers really suffered any kind of persecution during his lifetime. Yes, we have the account of Paul, but that came later. So we are faced with the situation in which something that Jesus said is likely due to circumstances that only came about after Jesus’ death. And we know that Jesus said this because it’s part of the Q material, and we know that it’s part of the Q material because it’s included in both Matthew and Luke. But if it is unlikely that Jesus said this, that makes the Q hypothesis rather untenable because it, apparently, includes material from after the time of Jesus’ death.
Which leads us to one of the more annoying aspects of the Q hypothesis. In order to cover some of these embarrassing moments, it is posited that Q exists in strata, in layers, that accumulated through time. The implication of this is that some of the material obviously does not trace back to Jesus. This is an eminently convenient suggestion, because it means that Q can include whatever those reconstructing it say it includes. In this way it has all sorts of stuff that a true sayings gospel does not have. We also mentioned this in the commentary: Thomas is a true sayings gospel. Virtually all the passages begin with “Jesus said”. This is how a true sayings gospel should be set up. Much of the hullaballoo about Thomas was that it vindicated the Q theory by being a sayings gospel. Well, Q is not a true sayings gospel. It includes too much extraneous information about John the Baptist, the set-up for the Centurion’s son/servant, the setting of Jesus going up the mountain. All this points to a Q thesis that is not internally consistent, which makes the construction of the entire story suspect.
The point of all this is simple. When the Q debate is taken from the safe environs the Q people have created for it, the conclusions are not nearly so secure. The implication of this is that a legitimate Q debate needs to happen.
This chapter was a bit of a catch-all, with no central theme. We had the calling of the first disciples, a couple of miraculous healings together with some grumbling, and we ended up with some fasting and parables. The parables were of the new wine in old skins, and the patch of new cloth on an old garment. I really haven’t go into the very obvious symbolism of the new/old distinction, largely because it was so obvious I’ve missed it until now. Or, because I’m just not attuned to nuance like this. Whichever. The point being that all three gospels set this aphorism into more or less the same context: the comparison of Jesus’ disciples to those of John. In the latter case, John stood squarely and solidly within the context of Jewish tradition; Jesus, OTOH, was something new. He was the new wine that will burst the skins, or the new cloth that will tear away from the old garment. Or, at least, he is those things in the first two gospels. I just noticed something else here: the implication of the new wine bursting the old skins is that Jesus brings a new message, one that is not, and cannot be contained–or constrained–by the old way of doing things.
Luke, however, adds a new little quip onto the end of this that actually contradicts the implication left by 2M. Here, Luke adds that, after having the old, no one wants the new. This volte-face is puzzling on the face of it. Most of the commentaries that I skimmed through agree that it is a reference, of course, to the old/new dichotomy represented by John and Jesus. The preference for the old supposedly is a reflexion or commentary on the inherent conservatism of people in general, and perhaps the Jews–or, at least, the Jewish followers of John–in particular. And, since no better, or even other explanation or interpretation presents itself, this may be a reasonable way to take this, even if it does feel a bit strained. But then, one has to realize that, while Luke is a good writer and thinker in general, that’s not to say he nails every single point he makes; every once in a while he’ll throw up a brick (basketball analogy = take a bad shot). So it is a bit of an awkward addition, but OTOH, it can be said that it does provide a new take on the theme of the Messianic Secret as we’re seeing in Luke. The Jews tasted the old, and they tasted the new, and preferred the old, so they did not convert to become followers of Jesus, but remained in their old ways. I will, however, continue to suggest as I did in the commentary that this did work to connect Jesus to that old tradition; at least, I believe that it was meant to do that. The level of effectiveness is debatable, of course, but a bad shot is still a shot.
That was actually to start at the end. The beginning of the chapter has us calling the first disciples. Luke adds a whole additional piece of narrative with Jesus convincing the fishermen to follow him by a “miraculous” catch of fish. I put that in quotes because it’s really not a true miracle in the sense that the laws of nature are contravened, but it does demonstrate a level of divinity that Jesus could effect this event the way he did. Was this addition necessary? Not really, but that is not the question that should be asked. Rather, we should ask what the addition accomplished. Back when we had the first iteration of this story in Mark, we pointed out that it was a very remarkable thing that these men left their occupation, their home, and their family to follow Jesus. My contribution was that, if Jesus had lived in Caphernaum, then he was likely known to these men, so perhaps their action was not quite the dramatic break that it may have seemed at first glance. Did Luke sense this, too, which caused him to add the new bit? And which caused him to insist that Jesus was from Nazareth, to the point that he moved the “a prophet is without honor in his own land” story to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, rather than holding it for numerous chapters as 2M did? That is certainly possible. But then we have to stop and realize that, per Luke’s own narrative, this was not the first encounter between Jesus and Peter. In Luke, by the time we get to the calling of the disciples, Jesus has already been to Peter’s house and healed Peter’s mother-in-law. So there is a temporal anomaly here. We don’t have to see any real significance to this muddling of time; Luke simply wasn’t concerned about keeping the order intact. He kept the stories in their larger context: the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law came after the synagogue, as it did in the other gospels, but the sequence of that story and the calling of Peter is scrambled.
However, it is worth pointing this out for one very big reason. Much of the “argument” for Q rests upon the Luke’s arrangement of the so-called Q-material vs the “masterful” arrangement of Matthew. In fact, this is most of the argument for Q. So to demonstrate that Luke had absolutely no qualms about rearranging Mark’s material would, or at least should, indicate that Luke put stuff wherever he chose without being unduly constrained by where his predecessors put things. Luke moved the episode of the Peter’s mother-in-law to a location that, really, doesn’t make sense vis-à-vis the story of the calling of Peter. Given this, why should he be reluctant to mess up the Q material? Especially if Q did not exist? If Q did not exist–and there is absolutely no evidence that it did–then Luke is not changing the order or arrangement of the Q material. He’s changing the order and arrangement of Matthew’s material. But, since he does the same with Mark’s material, this re-arrangement of Matthew’s material is not particularly noteworthy, is it?
The middle section of the chapter involves two healings, the first of a leper, the second of the paralytic on the litter. The latter includes the discussion about blasphemy because Jesus forgave the man’s sins. In both the scenes, Luke incorporates elements from different episodes in Mark, merging them into a composite that I have so charmingly been calling a “mash-up”. Setting out on this summary, I was not aware of how many miracles Mark reported vs the number reported by Luke. I went through both gospels and listed what I found in each. The end was that both had reasonably equal amounts, about 22 each. The lists may vary, depending on whether preaching apocalypse should be considered a miracle, or whether I missed the feeding of the 4,000 in Luke. Regardless, the point is the same. While Luke may reconstruct some of the stories of Mark, the former adds his own variations and his own different stories, such as the healing of a group of ten lepers which is unique to him. Given that, I’m not sure what inferences, let alone conclusions, we can draw from the places where Luke diverges from Mark, with the one possible exception. Luke is, apparently, not interested in simply retelling Mark; Luke sets out to tell a new version of the story, with a lot of new material. To make room for this new stuff, perhaps he felts it best to compress some of the older stuff. And even then, though, my characterization of these scenes as “mash-ups” is probably a bit irreverent, and needlessly so; in fact, perhaps it crosses into inaccurate. Luke may have filled in one story with details from another, but these borrowings–which assumes I’m even accurately describing what Luke does–really do not change the overall picture, or the overall sense of the story. There’s no new theological insights to be gleaned, no real indications of a development of the beliefs of the community or communities. We should look for those in the completely original material.
So far, the completely original material has dealt with what we would call a prequel–the story that happened before the story. What did that tell us? As I see it, this material wasn’t completely original, at least in conception. The stories of the Zecharias and Elisabeth and the pre-natal Baptist and the Annunciation, the census and no room at the inn are not entirely novel in outlook. With these sections, Luke is not adding new thoughts per se; rather, he is extending the trend begun by Matthew, who set out to demonstrate the cosmic significance of the birth of Jesus. Matthew did this largely through the star and the magoi; Luke took this a step–many steps, actually–further, extending it to Mary and her kin, by including the Baptist in the family tree, by substituting Simeon and Anna for the magoi. Of course this reflects on the Q “argument”, but we’re not going there at the moment. We will; just not immediately. There wasn’t much to say about this chapter as a whole. I don’t know if that will continue, or if additional reading will open up new vistas.
That is the problem with the approach I’ve taken; it’s not scholarly. I have not read ahead, taken copious notes, and carefully plotted Luke against what has come before. Rather, it’s been more of a Wild-West show, shoot from the hip and ask questions later. The former approach, of course, is, well, scholarly and considered, taking what is said in the context of what else has been or will be said. That approach is useful for certain things. But the go-into-it-blind approach is better for capturing spontaneity. How does what we read stand on its own? What does it–and it alone–tell us? What is the stark message and implications of just this particular passage? What does it say before we water it down by putting it into the context of everything else? Those, too, are important questions, and ones that don’t get asked often enough. It’s time–long past time, actually–to shake things up a little bit, to shake the tree and see what may fall out that we did not expect.
There is a very good chance that this summary will be either 1) rather short; 2) rather different; or 3) both. The most salient feature of this chapter, or at least about the commentary regarding it, is how much is dedicated to the discussion of Q rather than to the text itself. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the discussion of the text has focused on whether or not it supports or undercuts the case for Q. To some degree, this is inevitable. We’re on the third iteration for some of these stories, so we’ve already picked the bones clean (OK, a bit of hyperbole) regarding the content and how it reflects the status of Christian belief at the time of writing. So the triangulation for Q is the most salient aspect of the text in many ways.
Overall, Luke’s content, his arrangement, and even his verbiage is much closer to Mark than to Matthew; however, already there have been significant exceptions. Most notably, there are pieces of the story of Jesus not being accepted in Nazareth that are completely novel, unique to Luke. Most likely, as I see it, this most likely means that Luke created or crafted these stories himself. In addition, Luke felt no qualms about doing something of a mash of material in Mark’s Chapter 1 with Mark’s Chapter 5. We know that there are a number of novel pieces coming our way, all of them of good literary quality, so we can pretty safely infer that Luke had a high degree of literary sensibility and talent. One aspect of such talent is creativity; from what we’ve read of Zacharias and Elisabeth, the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, we should have a good inkling that Luke was a creative talent of some significance. As such, we should see his departures from Mark as very deliberate.
This leads to the question of his relationship, if any, to Matthew. Does this connexion occur only indirectly, via Q, or does Luke have a direct relationship, from having read Matthew’s gospel. That’s the question. So far the evidence seems to be leaning in favour that yes, Luke did know of Matthew’s gospel. Remember, the Q people say that Luke never agrees with Matthew against Mark. Remember, he does this all the time, except they call it Q when he does it. This argument is very close to, if not completely circular. How do we know what’s in Q? Because it’s in Matthew and Luke but not Mark. Why doesn’t Luke ever agree with Matthew against Mark? Because that is Q material. How do we know it’s Q material? Because it’s in Matthew and Luke but not Mark. As I said, not exactly the classic paradigm of a circular argument (which is what “begging the question” actually means), but it’s very close. The other “argument” for derives from the way Luke misarranges the material in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew, it’s so perfect that only a “fool or a madman” would change it, and surely Luke was neither. This is not an argument; it’s the logical fallacy of Complex Question: have you stopped embezzling from your company? The question cannot be answered in any legitimate fashion.
And yet, we have encountered numerous aspects in which Luke does agree with Matthew against Mark. To enumerate, once again:
- Giving Jesus a “human” father, whose name was Joseph;
- By telling us Jesus was born in Bethlehem;
- That Jesus was born of a virgin;
- That an angel of God announced to one of the two that Jesus had been/was to be conceived by the sacred breath;
- That Herod was on the throne when all of this started, at least;
- The creation of a genealogy for Jesus;
There are others, I believe, that escape me at the moment. Even as is, this list is too long to be attributed to mere coincidence.
Speaking of probability, there is the point, proclaimed loudly and often, that Luke never, ever, not once agrees with Matthew against Mark. Except for the six points above. Without realizing it, by insisting on using this argument, the Q people are sort of cutting the ground out from under their own feet. Never implies a perfect correlation; this never (pun intended) happens in reality, except in those cases where it does, but they are very, very infrequent. Since perfect correlation is so rare, it’s existence is always suspect. As such, the perfect correlation posited here is suspect. That’s about as fundamental a syllogism as you’re apt to find in the real world. So if the correlation is so perfect, that implies deliberate choice: Luke chose to agree with Mark against Matthew rather than vice versa.
The last point is that there are times when the verbiage of Luke and Matthew is nearly identical, to the point of using the same unusual word. This can be accounted for one of two ways: First, that they both copied Q almost verbatim; or second, that Luke copied Matthew almost verbatim. Why would a creative genius such as I’ve suggested Luke to be copy Matthew rather than create his own version? Well, why would he copy Q the same way? If you’re going to suggest that he judiciously copied Q, why is it so hard to believe that he copied Matthew? Answer, it’s not hard at all. Beside that, we’ve talked about probability again. How likely is it that two people would copy the same source in almost exactly the same way? Is that more likely, or less likely, than suggesting that similarity between two authors is because one copied the other, rather than that they both copied some unknown source, one for which there is not a shred of evidence for its existence?
Yes, this is a lot about probability. But that’s what history–good history–is: trying to find the most likely explanation for an event, or series of events. It’s not about creative interpretation; that’s a different branch of the literary art called “fiction”.
The real issue is that the changes Luke made have no real theological impact. Adding the bit about Jesus passing through the midst of the crowd that wants to lynch him is a foreshadow of Jesus after the Resurrection, Or, is thus indicating that Luke is verging on docetism, that Jesus did not actually have a corporeal body? That had not occurred to me before, but now that it has occurred to me, I will pay attention to see if there is any further indication. That would indeed be theologically significance. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the addition of this piece to Chapter 4 does not forward the story line in any significant manner. Theologically, it does reinforce Jesus’ divinity, but that’s already been pretty thoroughly established given the time dedicated to the stories of John, the Visitation (2nd Joyful Mystery of the Rosary), the Heavenly Host at the birth, and all the rest of the episodes added prior to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. But this reinforcement is adding to an already laden wagon. As for the story, I’m not sure what it does, but Luke obviously felt it was important enough to make out of whole cloth.
So this lack of transparent motive is the reason, or part of it, that we’re spending so much time discussing Q. The larger part, of course, is that Q has become a thing for me, and I fear that I spend altogether too much time on the subject; however, whether Q existed or not is of enormous importance to the way the NT is studied. And yet a real debate on the topic has never been held. This even exceeds the “dash on Phaleron” hypothesized by J.A.R. Munro in 1899; he suggested that the Persians were loading their cavalry back into their ships to sail to Phaleron, then the port of Athens, while the Athenian army was at Marathon. This idea held the field until the early 1970s, when the first serious challenges were offered, some seventy years later. Q, in contrast, has held the field , fundamentally unchallenged, for well over a century. That needs to end.
So, more about Q than about Luke, I’m afraid. But Luke is the key to the Q question. There will be more, but I will try to refrain from long-winded explanations of stuff I’ve already explained. Feel free to call me on it before it becomes insufferable.
About two-thirds of this chapter is devoted to John the Dunker; another quarter is devoted to the genealogy (getting really tired of that word). That leaves something under ten percent to the immersion of Jesus.
The real significance of this chapter, IMO, is its relevance to the issue of Q. We have the first extensive overlap of Matthew and Luke; they both add a section on the railings of John towards those who came out to see him. This is the famous “brood of vipers” passage, with its warning that the axe is at the root. Both evangelists give their accounts in much the same language, with several key phrases repeated. This repetition is so striking—to the point that one Verse (15) pretty much exactly verbatim—that these sections are obviously from a common source. Conventional wisdom is that both evangelists derived this section from Q. This should immediately cause you to sit back and question this. After all, Q is supposed to be the sayings of Jesus. Last time I checked, John and Jesus were different people. Did I miss the memo updating that? That comment is not simply facetious; it points to the way the Q argument engages in a certain amount of sleight of hand. One moment, Q is “x”; the next it’s also “y”. This lack of consistency should be our first red flag about the existence of this mythical document. Perhaps it was written by unicorns dipping their horn in ink. Seriously, if Q is the stuff Jesus said, why is John quoted the way he is? And it’s not a short quote.
The simple answer is that this has to be part of Q; otherwise, the entire “argument” for its existence more or less collapses. If this is not in Q, that means that Luke and Matthew both got it from another separate source. This would bring the tally of source documents that have disappeared without a trace up to two. Ockham is turning in his grave as we keep inventing these extraneous sources. Even the Q people realize what a problem this would be which inhibits them from every having suggested it. So if it’s not from Q, or some unidentified other source, then the only other possible solution is that Luke copied it from Matthew. But that simply won’t do. And I admit the elegance of their solution: simply include this piece of John in Q. Never mind the logistics of how this happened. It’s bad enough that pretty much everything Jesus said pretty much missed Mark, who was supposedly a disciple of Peter, who supposedly heard almost everything Jesus said, but now we have to come up with some explanation for how this saying of John also bypassed Mark but boomeranged back to a point where the author of Q picked it up.
Let me just remind us of something: without Q, then we are faced with the very real, very likely possibility that Jesus didn’t say most of what he said. Which puts him in the same category as Yogi Berra. If these sayings of Jesus were not recorded in the period between his death and the time that Mark wrote, that means they were either transmitted orally for forty years, or they were composed at some point well after Jesus died. The most likely time would be when Matthew wrote. Since we know what forty years of oral transmission can mean (blessed are the cheesemakers), in either of these solutions we are probably dealing with sayings that, at best, may only kinda sorta maybe resemble things Jesus said; at worst, they were made up out of whole cloth because someone else decided that these were things that Jesus would have said, or perhaps should have said. That is to say, the link to Jesus becomes very, very tentative and diffuse, to the point of non-existent. This is why the existence of Q cannot be questioned. Without Q, the basis for calling ourselves “Christians” becomes extremely shaky. We can argue, of course, that these are wonderful things that Jesus said, so the actual author doesn’t matter. While true, this sort of misses the whole “divine” aspect of Jesus. If he wasn’t God incarnate, he’s just another prophet, like Elijah. Or Mohammed.
In short, there is a lot at stake if Q does not exist. So much so, in fact, that it appears that scholars are willing to overlook a fairly large body of contraindications to hold onto the ragged hopes of a dream.
It potentially gets worse. In this chapter we were compelled to face the problem presented by the genealogy. Why do both Matthew and Luke have one, but no one else? Why is Luke’s different? What does this say about Q? Well, we can rest assured that no version of Q ever reconstructed ever contained a genealogy, so we can’t ascribe Luke having one to a common source in Q. If not from Q, there are two choices: either Luke came up with the idea independently, or he got the idea from Matthew. Obviously, the fact that Luke’s is different from Matthew’s would seem to throw the weight of the argument towards independent development. That is a legitimate position. If we are being intellectually honest, however, we then need to come up with a probability that Luke came up with the idea on his own. How likely, really, is it that these two men, engaged in essentially the same endeavour, separated by a dozen (?) years and however many miles, came up with the same idea? Stranger things have certainly happened; parallel development is hardly all-that unusual an occurrence.
If it were just this one thing, that argument might seem to be the best option to explain the existence of genealogy in both gospels. It would explain the differences. But this is not an isolated incident. So far, we have seen a similar pattern with the birth narrative. Luke followed Matthew on Joseph, the Annunciation (but to Mary, rather than Joseph), and especially the virgin birth, but he changed most of the other details. But still, the themes mentioned are only found in Matthew; no one else mentions these things, just as no one else comes up with a genealogy. Are we to infer that Luke arrived at all of these ideas independently? Bear in mind that the addition of each theme decreases the probability of independent arrival by significant amounts. So I suggest the idea of the genealogy fits in rather nicely with Joseph, virgin birth, angels, and I neglected Bethlehem the first time around.
Then comes the question of why are they different? There is no fer-sure answer to that, of course. The simplest answer is that Luke was not aware of Matthew and so came up with his genealogy independently, and concocted his lineage according to his own principles, or “research”, or creativity; as mentioned, however, this comes with it’s own set of problems. The other possibility is that Luke correcting Matthew’s genealogy. Many of the commentaries suggest that this is Mary’s heritage, that Joseph was the son-in-law, rather than the son, of Heli. After all, Luke does not properly say “son of”; rather, it’s just Joseph of Heli (tou Eli), the “tou” indicating the genitive case which shows possession. So, it’s Joseph of Heli, with “son” understood. This is a standard practice in Greek writing that dates back centuries before the NT. So the suggestion that it’s “son-in-law” is speculative, of course, with no real evidence to support it. There is inferential evidence, however. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, not to Joseph as in Matthew. Mary is a major figure in Chapter 2. And Jesus is only “thought to be” the son of Joseph. Which is accurate if Jesus was conceived by the sacred breath and not by a human male. So why didn’t Luke just say “son of Mary, daughter of Heli”? After all, Mark refers to Jesus as “son of Mary” in Chapter 6. One can only speculate, but the whole idea of Jesus-as-illegitimate has to be borne in mind; after all, this is the most likely reason that Matthew came up with Joseph and the genealogy to begin with. If forced to guess, I would say that Luke probably did intend us to take this as Mary’s lineage, and the emphasis he put on her was to be our clue of this intent. This way, he’s more or less covered either regardless.
The final aspect of the Q discussion concerns the reported speech of the Baptist (or Dunker. Another possible translation is John the Plunger). Why are John’s words recorded in Q, which is supposed to be the sayings of Jesus? Answer: they have to be; otherwise, the only way to account for the remarkable similarity between the gospels is to conclude that Luke copied Matthew. Seriously. That is the only way to explain why these words of John are supposedly in Q. And this is what I meant when I said that <<One moment, Q is “x”; the next it’s also “y”>>. In other words, Q is the sayings of Jesus, except when we need it to record the words of John. That really feels intellectually dishonest. And the two accounts are remarkably similar, except that in Matthew John is excoriating the Pharisees, while in Luke the condemnation is leveled at everyone who comes out to be baptised. And that leads to the “winnowing fork” passage. The two accounts of Matthew and Luke are virtually identical, differing on exactly four points: Luke changes the verb tense of two verbs from future indicative to infinitive, and one has an extra “and” while the other has an extra “his”. Both of these latter could easily be later interpolations, but they don’t have to be for the point to hold. The likelihood that two people copied these words almost verbatim from Q is much smaller than if Luke simply copied them from Matthew.
The result is that, in the first couple of chapters, we have a significant number of instances where Luke did follow Matthew against Mark. We have Joseph, the annunciation by an angel, Bethlehem, the virgin birth, and the need for a genealogy. Remember: the Q people will state, flatly and with great conviction, that Luke never ever follows Matthew against Mark. But in the first three chapters we have five separate examples. And none of these appear in any reconstruction of Q. Then we come to the winnowing fork/threshing floor analogy, and we have a passage that is copied virtually verbatim in both accounts. Historical proof on controversial topics is never conclusive; that’s why they’re controversial. No one debates the Battle of Hastings and 1066; aspects of the battle can be debated and argued about hotly for generations, but the fundamental fact remains. So an argument on a controversial topic has to be pieced together, one small bit at a time. In three chapters, we have six separate indications that Luke used Matthew. What do the Q people have? That Luke never agrees with Matthew against Mark (against which we have the first five examples), and that Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is so masterfully wrought that only a fool or a madman would mess with the construction. That’s pretty much it. Notice, however that the first is wrong and the second is not an argument, but a value judgement about literary style. Personally, I did not find the three chapters of the Sermon on the Mount to be all that masterfully arranged. I found the whole thing rather jumbled together, a bunch of unconnected sayings that were thrown into the same hopper. One, of course, can disagree, and come up with textual and literary arguments for the masterful handling; but those are textual and literary arguments, and the latter is highly subjective and subject to taste and fashion. I prefer historical arguments; I believe I’ve found the very strong foundation of a case against Q. I don’t expect to topple the prevailing academic consensus, but you heard it here first.
But perhaps the most remarkable part of the Q debate is that its proponents do not feel the least bit compelled to prove Q existed. In fact, they have–somehow–managed to manoeuvre the discussion so that, in effect, the non-Q people have to prove it didn’t exist. They claim that the non-Q people have to explain every single instance that Luke disagrees with Matthew, and that the combined cases have to be an editorially consistent rationale. This is errant nonsense. The fundamental principle of any kind of rational endeavour is that, if you say something exists, the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate this. The two premises I laid out above do not create any such proof. They never attempt to explain how and why Mark missed Q completely, nor why Luke does agree with Matthew against Mark on the topics found in Chapter 3.
OK, this is turning into a rant.
This chapter includes the birth narrative, the story of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and Jesus’ adventure in Jerusalem at the age of twelve. The birth narrative is the more famous of the two, with most of the details that we think of as surrounding the birth of Jesus: the journey of Mary & Joseph to Bethlehem, no room at the inn, the manger, the shepherds who were sore afraid, and the heavenly host. The only details missing from the popular iconography of Christmas are the star and the Magoi; the Slaughter of the Innocents and the flight to Egypt do not play a large role in Christmas pageants around the country. In fact, we are told that all of Matthew’s themes are completely absent from Luke, so obviously Luke never read Matthew.
Or did he?
This bears repeating: thematically, Luke is very, very closely tied to the elements that Matthew added. To list them once again, Luke accepts the idea of a virgin giving birth, that the child conceived to the virgin was by way of the sacred breath, the announcement of this news came by angel-messenger, that Mary’s husband’s name was Joseph, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Even the timing of the birth is correlated to Matthew by putting the story of the birth of the Baptist in the reign of Herod, even though Jesus was born in the governorship of Quirinius. All of these details are found ony in Matthew. But it goes beyond even these details. Matthew is very keen to tell us that Jesus was the son of God, and that his birth was a world-historical event, heralded by a star. Well, Luke says that Jesus was the son of God, and that his birth was heralded by a heavenly host. And what is a star if not a different sort of heavenly host? Instead of magoi from the East, Luke gives us prophets in the Temple of Jerusalem. It is in this way that Luke conveys the prophecy of Jesus’ birth, but to the Jews rather than pagans. The shepherds in Luke fill the role of the Magoi in another way: in Matthew, people travel great distances, but the locals pretty much ignored the event. In Luke, both the locals (the shepherds) and the prophets (in Jerusalem) were aware of Jesus’ birth. So in both accounts it’s clear that the coming of Jesus was a world-historical event, presaged, foretold, and recognized and having been fulfilled.
In fact, if you tally up the different aspects of the story, pretty well all of them are found in Luke, but in altered form. But the alterations seem to dovetail very nicely and in complement, like a very well-crafted piece of furniture, with joints that are precise to the point of being invisible. What I am saying is that it feels, like Luke took the story of Matthew, digested the elements, took a step back, and then reconstituted these elements in a way that they carry the implication–and much of the fine detail–of Matthew and convey the message while providing an entirely different context for the different elements. The apparently complete lack of overlap between the two is more apparent than real, which, to my mind, signifies deliberate intent rather than creating an account that is wholly unaware of its predecessor. This is a very crucial point.
Much of the minimal argument that is put forth for Q rests on two things. The first is that Luke is completely unaware of places that Matthew added to Mark. Second is that Luke never, not once (well, except the “brood of vipers” thing from the Baptist) puts a story from Mark in the same context as Matthew does. Well, if Luke did follow Matthew in adding to, or changing Mark, that becomes Q material pretty much by definition; after all, Q is exactly that stuff that Matthew and Luke have that Mark doesn’t. So strike #1. As for #2, just by sheer dumb probability, Luke should have put at least one story from Mark in the same context that Matthew did. That this did not happen at all defies probability. If Luke’s choices were made completely independently of Matthew, there should be at least a couple of places where Luke used the same context as Matthew. The implication then becomes that, since he did not make the same placement, it’s because Luke chose not to make the same placement because he knew exactly where Matthew put the same stories. This fits in very nicely with what I’m saying about the nativity story, and Chapter 2 as a whole: Luke very nicely works around Matthew, he supplements and complements Matthew, but he also knows exactly where not to go. Matthew has pagan Magoi; Luke has Jewish prophecies. Matthew has a star; Luke has a multitude of the heavenly host. In each case, they announce the birth of Jesus. Luke’s placement, so far, has been very strategic.
There is one further aspect of this that needs to be mentioned. It has been pointed out numerous times that the story of Paul’s conversion that he provides in Galatians is very different from the more familiar version we find in Acts. The latter has the whole Road to Damascus immediacy and flamboyance. However, if you think about the experience being described, and think about what Paul says and take it allegorically, with a large dollop of drama added, the two descriptions are not dissimilar in their fundamentals. Yes, the outward appearance is very different, but the interior experience…maybe not so much. Both describe a revelation, a sudden and violent shift in perception; that one occurs while Paul is riding a horse and involves a blinding light, both of which are external events, or events perceived through the outward-facing senses, doesn’t change the inner experience. A sudden insight of life-changing proportions can certainly seem like a blinding flash of light; or, perhaps that’s a particularly effective way to describe the sensation to someone else.
Whether or not this is convincing or not will depend, I believe and to some extent, on whether one is willing to concede that a host of angels in the sky is another metaphor for the sudden appearance of a star. Both are miraculous; at least, the sudden appearance of a star would seem miraculous to someone unfamiliar with the concept of a supernova, which can cause a star to appear quite suddenly. And so the angels came and went. Suddenly. I believe there is a connexion, how each is a metaphor describing a celestial phenomenon meant to herald the occurrence of an event of great significance. If we notice that Luke does this on a consistent basis, then we have at least the potential for an argument that this is, indeed, what Luke was doing. And if he’s doing this, then he was bloody damn well aware of Matthew. And if Luke does this to Paul as well, then the case becomes stronger. In each case, I think, what Luke adds is the element of drama, in the sense of both stage direction and character development, but also heightened expectations and even dramatic tension. That is certainly true about Paul’s conversion.
So, in short, Chapter 2 is the backstory of Jesus. It’s about his birth in some detail, it adds episodes from Jesus’ early life. It also expands the role of Mary, something that I’ve been meaning to mention, but the time has not seemed ripe. Joseph remains a cipher; for whatever reasons, the cult of Joseph did not start to blossom until much later, to the point that he ended up the patron saint of Italy. But even then, he was not a truly popular figure who attracted tales and adventures. I suspect this is because he disappears so early in the story. He appears only in Chapter 1 of Matthew, and then only at the beginning. In Luke he makes it to Chapter 2, but that’s only after being wholly absent from Chapter 1. And it also occurs to me that Luke was very careful to tell his audience about the divine conception even before Joseph makes an appearance. Here is yet another way that Luke continues the story, retaining the character of Joseph, but also supplementing the story introduced by Matthew, smoothing out the rough edge of Joseph considering divorce. Matthew “corrected” the “problem” of Jesus having no father, leaving him open to charges of being illegitimate. Then Luke “corrects” the account of Matthew, eliminating completely the whole illegitimate thing. After all, Mary was pregnant when she was betrothed to/married to Joseph; the presumption was that the child had been fathered by another man, which was grounds for “putting her aside”. With Luke, that whole possibility of embarrassment is proactively eliminated by having the messenger Gabriel announce her impending conception before it happens. We do not know how the news was broken to Joseph, but that’s not really important; remember, Luke is not writing an account that he expects people to take seriously in all the details.
The point is, much is made of how different the birth stories are; why would Luke change Matthew? Answer: I’m not sure he did. He adds to Matthew, but nothing he says contradicts Matthew. He even retains most of Matthew’s additions to Mark: Joseph, virgin birth, annunciation by angels, reign of Herod, the birth heralded by celestial phenomena, Jesus’ identity understood by wise people, and probably a few other things that I’ve forgotten. Personally, I believe that I’m building a pretty decent case that Luke was very well aware of Matthew.
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.
The very large bulk of this chapter is dedicated to the story of John the Baptist. Or, rather, it’s given over to his rather miraculous origins. As such, calling this the Chapter of John the Baptist is not much of a stretch. Yes, we also have the story of the Annunciation, which became a major event on the Catholic calendar, but that is really sort of shoe-horned in amongst the tale of John’s parents and his parentage. This attention to John should tell us a lot about what the early church thought about Jesus’ precursor.
There have been countless times when I have encountered protestations that the early church was embarrassed by the connexion of Jesus to the Baptist. This chapter should drive a stake through the heart of that idea; indeed, this chapter should have driven that stake centuries ago. Time and again I have pointed out that one does not expand the attention given to a character that is supposed to be an embarrassment. Mark introduces John; there, if one is not paying attention, one could consider John is decidedly a second-, or even third-tier character. He appears, we are told a bit about him, he baptises Jesus, he gets executed. But think about that; given that Mark is not a terribly long gospel, the amount of space given to John is not inconsequential. So, even in Mark, we have the sense that John is someone important. Worse, from the Christian standpoint, is that Jesus seeks out John, and the John is the one performing the ritual baptism on Jesus, putting the Jesus in a decidedly inferior position. This is the source of the embarrassment.
If we accept that early, or proto-Christians found this embarrassing, we should expect that Matthew would take steps to downplay, or even omit entirely, the episode of the baptism. On the contrary, Matthew increases John’s role by giving him dialogue. More, this dialogue is supposedly part of Q, which supposedly means this dialogue was deemed important enough to be included in what is suppose to be a collection of Jesus’ teachings. More, it was included in Christian lore from a very early time in the development of the belief system. So, on one hand, John was embarrassing, but his teaching was included in sayings of Jesus; the two of those don’t quite match, do they? This is, yet another, indication that Q is not to be taken seriously; the definition of what Q is supposed to be changes to fit the circumstances the Q people wish to explain. John’s “brood of vipers” speech is found in Matthew and (spoiler alert!) Luke, but not Mark. Ergo, by definition, it had to have been part of Q or the tidy package of Q’s contents begins to unravel a bit. If there is material in Matthew and Luke that is not in Mark, but it’s not part of Q, then that opens the door to questions about what else in Matthew and Luke but not Mark (M&LbnM) might not be part of Q? And if we start picking out such pieces, the raison d’être for Q starts to come apart.
So, if Q is eliminated–as it should have been a century ago–and yet Matthew gave John dialogue that was not in Mark, then we are faced with the situation where Matthew is focusing even more on a personage about whom he’s supposed to be embarrassed. But wait, there’s more. Luke then follows up with expanding John’s story even more. The result of this expansion is the bulk of this chapter. This enlargement of John’s character fits very nicely into the way that legends grow. A name is remembered–or invented–in the first layer of the story. As time passes, the name attracts stories. I keep going back to the Arthur legend, but it is such a good example of the process. First we get Launcelot. Then Guinevere (or the other way around). Then we get their adulterous affair. Then Launcelot has a bastard son. Then that bastard son is given a name, and eventually Galahad becomes one of the knights who find the Grail. And so on. So, in the early layer, we get John. Matthew kinda sorta gives John some lines, the sort of thing that he thinks John woulda shoulda coulda said. Then Luke comes along and gives John a lineage. And not only is John not swept under the rug, he’s made into a kinsman of Jesus! They are first cousins!
Really, though, what Luke has done is to complete the domestication of John. The embarrassment of John was that Jesus began by seeking him out for baptism, putting Jesus in the subordinate role; it wasn’t John per se. Matthew, rather half-heartedly, attempts to solve the problem by having John demur upon Jesus’ request for baptism, John saying that it is he who should be baptised by Jesus. Very nice, but not enough for Luke. The new interpretation that Luke provides is brilliant, because it both elevates John while subordinating him even further. For when Mary goes to visit, even in utero John recognises that he is in the presence of the divine lord. His mother states that she is truly blessed to be visited by the mother of her lord. Zacharias provides a prophesy that is sort of a greatest hits from the HS, a compilation of prophecies that could be applied to Jesus, but all of them emphasizing John’s role as the precursor and herald of the mightier Jesus. It is Jesus who is the one everyone has been waiting for. John has been sent to make straight Jesus’ path. All of this emphasizes and re-emphasizes that it is John, not Jesus, who plays the subordinate role.
Even so, Luke subordinates John while raising him to nearly divine heights himself. John’s conception is modeled after that of Isaac, and no one with even a cursory knowledge of Hebrew myth would–could–miss this. John is conceived by a barren woman who is past the age of child-bearing, just as Sarah was before Elisabeth. In other words, John was important enough to the cosmic scheme that God himself intervened in order to make sure that John is conceived. And beyond that, he sent a messenger to tell Zacharias, just as the angels came to visit Abram, and his descendant Joseph. All in all, this indicates that John has a most important role to play in the unfolding of the divine plan; the subtle genius of Luke is that, by making John so important, he double-underscores the even greater significance of Jesus. After all, if God went to all this trouble about John, and John is just the herald, then well boy howdy Jesus must really be important. So Luke’s tale provides a double-whammy, kills two birds with one stone, and all those other two-for-one clichés. This is quite an accomplishment.
When discussing the messenger, Gabriel, sent to Zacharias, we mentioned the parallel to Matthew. He, too, had an angel reveal to Joseph the identity and the provenance of the child in Mary’s womb. This messenger returns, this time with a name. This is the first time in the NT that an angel is named. Michael appeared in Daniel, which would be the first canonical naming of an angel. It is interesting to note that 1 Enoch mentions Gabriel and six others; the date of 1 Enoch is the source of much speculation; most often it seems like it’s put in either of the first centuries, whether before or during the Common Era. This makes it possible, or even likely, that Luke got the name from 1 Enoch, if not directly, then indirectly because this angelology was in circulation in the time that Luke was writing. Did Matthew not name his angel because he wasn’t aware of 1 Enoch, or that angels were being given names? That strikes me as a very interesting question, one that could have some bearing on the date of 1 Enoch, pushing it later, rather than earlier. The other aspect of this is where did Matthew and Luke write? If Matthew wrote in Antioch, and Luke wrote in Rome, how is it that Luke (seemingly) knew about Enoch but Matthew didn’t? The point of all of this is that, once again, Luke is expanding on a theme introduced by Matthew. He doesn’t repeat Matthew, but he takes the basic concept, uses it, and enlarges the story.
Along with that, of course, is the idea of the virgin birth. As mentioned, this theme is found only in Matthew and Luke. It wasn’t part of the overall tradition, because it doesn’t show up anywhere else. Nor is it considered part of Q, largely because there is no single point of contact between the two gospels. And yet, there it is, along with the messenger of God and (spoiler alert!) Bethlehem. But we’ll get to that shortly.
It would be remiss not to say something about the Annunciation. Except I have no idea what to say about it. It’s another way that Luke expands on Matthew, although the announcement comes to Mary, and not to Joseph. This may be significant. But enough for now. On to Chapter Two.
Update: A possible explanation for the Annunciation has just occurred to me. Recall that, in Matthew, Joseph was not aware of the conception of Jesus by the sacred breath. The messenger had to come and tell Joseph so that he wouldn’t divorce Mary for carrying the child of another man. This way, that bit of awkwardness is eliminated; we all know going in that Jesus was of divine origin, and so Joseph has no need to contemplate divorce.
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.