Reading Around the Bible, 2: Matthew

Having finished the Old Testament a couple weeks ago, and passing over the Apocrypha for now, I decided to proceed with the New Testament by not only reading *around* it via commentaries by others, but to in parallel read the books themselves. I’ve finished Matthew. Of the commentators mentioned earlier, Miller is now of little use, while Asimov (who has 137 pages of commentary about just Matthew!) is of the most use, along with the very detailed footnotes in the Oxford NRSV.

Without pretending any kind of thorough analysis, I’ll list some initial thoughts of reading Matthew below. First, context from Pinker, p12:

Just as the Hebrew Bible offers a glimpse into the values of the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, the Christian Bibles tells us much about the first two centuries CE. Indeed, in that era the story of Jesus was by no means unique. A number of pagan myths told of a savior who was sired by a god, born of a virgin at the winter solstice, surrounded by twelve zodiacal disciples, sacrificed as a scapegoat at the spring equinox, sent into the underworld, resurrected amid much rejoicing, and symbolically eaten by his followers to gain salvation and immortality.

Asimov makes a related point, in his discussion of Matthew 24, p212:

It is important to remember that, in the century after the fall of the Maccabees, many men with Messianic pretensions arose and that every one of them had some following. Concerning every one of them, there rose wonder tales of miraculous feats and cures, tales that grew in the telling.

‘Grew in the telling’ indeed.

Pinker goes on to describe the Roman Empire and its Colosseum and its gruesome form of execution, crucifixion, which Pinker details in order to wonder how this punishment of Jesus was regarded by early Christians. Not with horror.

In allowing the crucifixion to take place, God did the world an incalculable favor. Though infinitely powerful, compassionate, and wise, he could think of no way to reprieve humanity from punishment for its sins (in particular, for the sin of being descended from a couple who had disobeyed him) than to allow an innocent man (his son no less) to be impaled through the limbs and slowly suffocate in agony. By acknowledging that this sadistic murder was a gift of divine mercy, people could earn eternal life. And if they failed to see the logic of all this, their flesh would be seared by fire for all eternity.

Pinker’s point is largely how this gruesome violence was thought perfectly ordinary in that era, and he goes on to describe the equally gruesome deaths (which “Christian martyrologies described … with pornographic relish”) of various early Christian saints, but my point in quoting the passage is because it points out what has always struck me as the essential incoherence of Christian theology — that given an omniscient God who could have arranged the initial conditions for humanity to be *anything*, he set it up the way he did, to bring about ‘sin’ upon his creations and then somehow to require the blood sacrifice of his ‘son’ in order to somehow ‘redeem’ believers. So much more plausible to understand it all as just one of many primitive myths, that happened to be preserved through the accidental preservation of written records (some of them at least; also been reading Elaine Pagels). That such stories of messiahs were going around is consistent with the apparent historical fact that no Roman history, for example, mentions Jesus (though one does mention John the Baptist); all of them might have been forgotten had the contingencies of history been slightly different…

So, Matthew:

  • Matthew is obsessed with how his story fulfills Old Testament prophecy; indeed, that seems to be why New Testament authorities placed it first among the four gospels, though the consensus of modern scholars is that Mark was written first, Matthew and Luke deriving from Mark and a now-lost document called Q.
  • It’s ‘tradition’ that the author of Matthew was the tax collector in 9:9, but only tradition, with no evidence. And all the gospels were written decades after the events they describe. (Again, one wonders what compelled those writers, decades after the fact, to do so.)
  • Matthew is so preoccupied with justifing his version of Jesus with OT prophecies, he is deliberately or accidentally not especially accurate, for the sake of a better story: thus the symmetry of three sets of 14 generations, which isn’t accurate, and if Joseph is not literally the father of Jesus, irrelevant.
  • It seems the only NT source for Mary being a virgin is Matthew’s deliberate or accidental misinterpretation of a story (not intended as a prophecy) from Isaiah 7:14 concerning what in the original was a Hebrew word that could have meant merely “young woman”. We suppose Matthew was motivated by the similar stories, as Pinker describes above, and needed the added force of Jesus’ mother being a virgin to place his story among them. (And from such a slender thread hang thousands of years of veneration of the Virgin Mary.)
  • As Asimov notes, p120.2: “But the Jews were, in those days, surrounded by a vast world of Gentiles who had traditions of their own. It was quite customary and usual in Gentile legend (almost necessary, in fact) that any great hero, any wonder-worker be the son of a god. A virgin could be impregnated by a god in magical fashion–this would not be impossible in the Greek tradition.”
  • Matthew, like the OT writers, is fond of the dream as a device for receiving wisdom or warnings.
  • Asimov has much fascinating speculation about the “historic Jesus”, i.e. suggesting social and political background of the time as plausible circumstances for how Jesus’ life developed as it did. Similarly, later in Matthew he speculates that Judas’ motives keyed off his being the only disciple who was Judean, not Galilean.
  • Not only is Matthew preoccupied with fulfilling OT prophecy, so is Jesus himself! (At least according to Matthew.) Thus does Jesus summon a donkey on which to enter Jerusalem. (So what’s the point? It’s not as if *all* those old prophecies were fulfilled.)
  • Jesus’ sermons were in the context of his insistence that the ‘second coming’ would occur in the lifetimes of his followers. Thus, an admonition to a wealthy man to give away all his riches (and follow Jesus) might make a bit of sense if the world was about to end. But considering…
  • Again, the tradition of Judas receiving 30 pieces of silver is found only in Matthew, and apparently only so Matthew could allude to an OT passage about 30 pieces of silver.
  • Less specifically, more broadly, the teachings of Jesus, e.g. the sermon on the mount, are full of broad directives that aren’t much better than OT laws and the harshest of which virtually all Christians today ignore. Divorce? Pluck out your eye or cut off your foot?
  • Asimov points out that one of Matthew’s OT fulfillment passage is simply wrong, p226, the one concerning the potter’s field where Judas threw his 30 pieces. “The two passages are therefore not parallel, as Matthew apparently felt, but, on the contrary, antithetical.”
  • The first witness of Jesus’ empty tomb, and thus supposedly the Resurrection, was Mary Magdalene, who was not, despite tradition, a prostitute, but rather a mad woman, “out of whom he [Jesus] had cast seven devils”. Of the disciples she told, even Matthew admits some of them doubted (28:17). (Asimov has a plausible reconstruction for how events surrounding a “historical Jesus” and a madwoman might, as they say, grow in the telling.)

Miller’s Skeptical Annotation makes a few additional interesting points: how repeated use of the phrase “unto this day” indicates that the book was written down later than the events it portrays; how a couple specific passages (7:6 and 18:15) have been used to justify practices of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to not speak truth and not investigate incidents of child molestation. And of course 27:25, used to justify condemnation of Jews forever as being to blame for the death of Jesus. [Which, it’s always seemed to me, is a paradox: if this whole blood sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus is arranged by God to redeem humanity’s sin, then how can anyone be to *blame* for Jesus’ death? It was supposed to happen!]

My purpose in all this isn’t to debunk the Bible (that’s too easy, and wouldn’t matter to ‘believers’ — which is a crucial point itself), it’s to examine it as the greatest single set of documents that must demonstrate both motivated reasoning and the biases of narrative. That is, why did these stories, the gospels in particular, get written as they did? What do the differences between them indicate about the motivations of the authors? Why did it not occur to someone to write these stories down until decades after the fact? Presumably social and political circumstances surrounding the followers of this one particular would-be messiah — in contrast to the follows of all the others — triggered something. Or was it mere chance, that the messiah around whom the first set of gospels were written were spread first merely because they were first? (Other gospels were lost or left out of the cannon.)

So the gospels are just the most prominent examples of histories written, innocently or deliberately, to serve some purpose that is distinct from the recording of nominally objective history. That idea of how stories matter, and why certain stories become more important than others, ideas which lie at the root of all of history, is what interests me. That speaks to why humans believe such stories at all, even those based on the slimmest of evidence, over, for example, the endlessly documented evidence for things in the real world but which humans prefer to ignore or deny.

Coincidentally, quite remarkably coincidentally, there’s a new book by Bart D. Ehrman, just published March 1st and which I didn’t see until last week, about precisely this subject: how stories of the past get written and how this applies to the gospels.. The book is Jesus Before the Gospels, subtitled “How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented their Stories of the Savior”. I’ll be reading this one too.

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