James Patrick’s Blog

March 13, 2009

Galatians in 60 seconds

Filed under: Structure — alabastertheology @ 11:20 am
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While I’m working on a post on the Synoptic Problem, I thought I’d stick something shorter up on an unrelated topic.  I’m speaking at church this week [see podcast for 15/03/09] on Galatians 6:1-10, and in preparation I had a think about how Paul’s argument develops through Galatians.  A fairly common way of thinking about Galatians seems to be in three parts – chapters 1-2, chapters 3-4 and chapters 5-6.  For example, Alan Cole’s Tyndale commentary (p. 27) names these three sections as ‘The Argument from History’, ‘The Argument from Theology’, and ‘The Moral Argument’.  Similarly, John Stott’s BST commentary (pp. 185-191) summarises Paul’s argument in these three sections as addressing ‘the question of authority’, ‘the question of salvation’, and ‘the question of holiness’.

I certainly agree these are helpful in breaking Galatians down into different sections to consider together, but I don’t think Paul himself was trying to organise his letter in these three sections.  Often our interpretation of a book of the Bible can be constrained by the chapter divisions and even more by the headings inserted into the text by modern translators.  The earliest divisions of the New Testament books that we know of are the ‘kephalaia’ you can still find in the inner margin of the ‘Nestle-Aland 27′ Greek NT.  These were probably primarily to be able to refer to a particular section within the book, rather than an indication of the author’s plan in composing the book.  [In Galatians, for example, these are as follows: (1) 1:11-24; (2) 2:1-10; (3) 2:11-21; (4) 3:1-6; (5) 3:7-9; (6) 3:10-14; (7) 3:15-29; (8) 4:1-20; (9) 4:21-5:1; (10) 5:2-12; (11) 5:13-6:10; (12) 6:11-18.]

Chapter divisions were only inserted in 1205 by Stephen Langton, a professor in Paris who later became Archbishop of Canterbury.  The Old Testament chapter (or section) divisions are quite ancient, and the verse divisions had been introduced by around 500 AD to mark where the synagogue reader needed to pause for someone to translate the Hebrew into Aramaic for those listening.  The NT verse divisions were added by a book printer from Paris called Robert Stephanus, travelling on horseback from Paris to Lyons, and were first officially recognised by their use in Theodor Beza’s edition of the New Testament in 1565.  People have since wondered whether it was being on horseback that explains some of Stephanus’ inappropriate verse divisions!

Anyway, back to the argument of Galatians.  I tried to think through how different passages were connected to each other, and between the introduction and conclusion I’ve identified five sections, dealing with (1) the Jerusalem apostles, (2) righteousness and law, (3) inheritance and law, (4) persecution, and (5) sin in the churches.  Within each I’ve tried to summarise how Paul develops his argument – not always exactly in order, but giving the general gist.  I’d love to hear from people if they find it helpful, or if they’d like any bit explained more clearly.  Here is the structure then (time yourself reading it aloud):


1:1-5 Introduction
• Greetings

1:6-2:14 Gospel not from men
• I’m not from the ‘great’ apostles;
• nor is my gospel.
• They agree with me,
• but even if they didn’t…

2:15-3:14 Righteousness not from Law
• Rightness isn’t from Law;
• it wasn’t for us,
• it wasn’t for Abraham,
• it wasn’t even for Jesus.

3:15-4:11 Inheritance not from Law
• Law just filled a gap…
• like conditions added to a will,
• ineffective against the promise;
• disciplining immaturity,
• until we become sons.
• Why go back to that?

4:12-5:12 Join me enduring persecution
• You took me in despite my shame;
• now they try to shame you.
• Hold out, in faith and hope.
• False teachers answer to God.

5:13-6:10 Sort out your problems Spiritually
• You have plenty of problems.
• Spirit, not Law, is the answer.
• Help sinners without boasting.
• Avoid sin through Christ.
• Do good through the Spirit.

6:11-18 Blessings to all who live by the cross
• Conclusion:
• They’re scared and selfish.
• I’d rather be like Jesus.
• God bless those like me, Gentile or Jewish.

March 7, 2009

Matthew’s Gospel structure: a Messianic reflection on Isaiah

Filed under: Structure — alabastertheology @ 4:38 am
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This exploration of the structure of Matthew’s Gospel came out of an idea I had while studying Matthew 13 for my previous post on “What is the point of theology?” .  I have done very little study of the Synoptic Problem (the literary relationships between Matthew, Mark and Luke), but as I delved further into the structure of Matthew I found myself arriving at a tentative opinion on the subject far removed from what I had previously assumed was the most ‘obvious’ explanation.  But that is jumping ahead of myself.

I will start with the principles I believe Matthew used to structure his material (clusters of tradition arranged around quotations from Isaiah), followed by a simple summary of the structure I believe I have uncovered.  Then I will justify my separation of the different sections through a more thorough explanation of each section and the way it hangs together.  Finally I will draw in a comparison with Mark’s Gospel, and from there make a few initial suggestions about a ‘new’ (or ancient!) way to think about the ‘problem’ of the Synoptic Gospels.  [Having just completed the ‘brief’ examination of my proposed structure, I have decided to post this as is, and leave the comparison with Mark’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel along with suggestions regarding the Synoptic Problem to a separate post.]

Previous structural suggestions about Matthew’s Gospel:  Donald Hagner’s ‘Word Biblical Commentary’ on Matthew 1-13 (Dallas: Word, 1993. pp. li-liii) gives a very helpful summary of the main scholarly approaches to identifying the structure of this gospel.  One of the most important points to start with is Matthew’s obvious love for literary arrangements, including the use of groups of 3, 6, 9 or 7, chiastic structures (A-B-C-B’-A’), alternation of narrative and dialogue, and various other types.  Although some suggestions of smaller structures are somewhat forced or inconclusive, it is hard to deny that literary arrangement is a feature of the text at least on a small scale.  The question is whether there is any overall large-scale structure apparent in Matthew’s Gospel.

Hagner identifies two of the most common structuring features of the Gospel, the first being the phrase “when Jesus finished all these sayings” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1), which concludes each of the five main teaching discourses in the Gospel, and is followed by a narrative section as in John’s Gospel.  Some have tried to compare these to the five books of Moses or the five ‘festal garments’ books of the Old Testament (Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations), but without much success.  The five discourses are identified by Hagner as follows:
(1)  the Sermon on the Mount – chaps. 5-7
(2)  mission directives to the Twelve – chap. 10
(3)  parables of the kingdom – chap. 13
(4)  discipleship and discipline – chap. 18
(5)  eschatology – chaps. 24-25

Problems with this ‘five discourse’ structuring that Hagner notes are first, that the diatribe against the Pharisees in chapter 23 cannot easily be considered part of the following eschatological discourse; second, that chapter 11 has lots of teaching outside of the five discourse structure; and third, that the infancy and passion narratives do not appear to play a central part in this structure, and end up looking more like the prologue and epilogue, which can hardly be correct.  Some scholars do attempt to address these objections, but nevertheless the ‘five discourse’ structure hasn’t commanded general acceptance.

The second most common structuring feature is perhaps more widely accepted despite being less helpful for explaining smaller groupings of teaching or narrative traditions.  This is the two “pivotal points” marked by the phrase “from that time Jesus began…” (4:17; 16:21).  These two occurrences of the phrase separate the Gospel into three sections:
(1)  the person of the Messiah – 1:1-4:16
(2)  the proclamation of the Messiah – 4:17-16:20
(3)  the passion of the Messiah – 16:21-28:20
The main problem with identifying these as deliberate structural markers is that they cannot be divided neatly from the few verses that immediately precede them, so they are not really acting like ‘title’ phrases for the new sections.

Matthew’s obsession with Old Testament prophecies:  Hagner follows his introduction to structure in Matthew’s Gospel with a section on use of the Old Testament, and notes here (pp. liv-lv) that apart from the numerous allusions to Old Testament passages, Matthew has included over sixty explicit quotations of Old Testament texts, “more than twice as many as any other gospel”.  The quotations are clearly understood to be about Jesus, therefore assuming a (Jewish-Christian?) audience that would have known these prophecies and their relevance to Jesus.  Hagner says that Matthew obviously believed the “totality” of the story of Jesus “to be understood as the fulfilment of what God had promised in the Scriptures”.  Even so, he somewhat disappointedly admits, “The placement of the quotations in the book does not help us to discern the structure of the Gospel…”  Here I am afraid I must disagree.

Principles underlying my suggestion of the structure:
The first principle is the one just discribed – that Matthew had an obvious passion for applying Old Testament prophecy to Jesus, even if several of his applications seem counter-intuitive to modern scholars.
The second principle is that within the Early Church’s use of the Old Testament, certain books were more widely known and more often used and quoted than other books, with Psalms in the lead, followed closely by Isaiah, and then the books of the Pentateuch (particularly Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy).
The third principle is that Matthew fairly obviously arranged much of his material around certain ‘themes’, which explains why teachings that are together in Matthew sometimes appear in separate places in Luke (who was more interested in chronological arrangement).  This principle might be described as ‘clustering’ of traditions, and will become apparent in my explanation of the structure below.
The fourth principle is that editorial comments in the Gospels (i.e. explanatory comments that aren’t narrative or teaching of Jesus) are obvious clues to the intentions the author had in writing.  In Matthew’s Gospel there are several important and emphasised quotations of Old Testament passages that appear as ‘asides to the audience’, comments explaining the prophetic fulfilment significance of the events or teaching being narrated, but not essential to the telling of them.

My proposed structure of Matthew’s Gospel:
1)  1:1-2:23  –  ‘The virgin shall bear a son’  [Mt 1:23 = Isa 9:6]
2)  3:1-4:11  –  ‘The way of the Lord in the wilderness’  [Mt 3:3 = Isa 40:3]
3)  4:12-7:29  –  ‘A great light in Galilee’  [Mt 4:15-16 = Isa 9:1-2]
4)  8:1-10:42  –  ‘He carried away our diseases’  [Mt 8:17 = Isa 53:4]
5)  11:1-12:45  –  ‘Bruised reeds & Gentile judgement’  [Mt 12:17-21 = Isa 42:1-4]
6)  12:46-13:58  –  ‘Hearing and understanding’  [Mt 13:14-15 = Isa 6:9-10]
7)  14:1-16:12  –  ‘Teaching the traditions of men’  [Mt 15:8-9 = Isa 29:13]
8)  16:13-21:11  –  ‘The King coming to Zion, gentle’  [Mt 21:5 = Isa 62:11 & Zec 9:9]
9)  21:12-25:46  –  ‘House of prayer’ or ‘robbers’ den’  [Mt 21:13 = Isa 56:7 & Jer 7:11]
10)  26:1-28:20  –  ‘Shepherd and sheep’ (& Galilee)  [Mt 26:31 = Zec 13:7 & Isa 53:4-6]

In identifying this structure I was not intending beforehand to identify ten sections, nor had I looked at the commentaries for what other scholars had noted were important verses for structure or theology.  However it is interesting the number of agreements I have found with observations in the commentaries since then.  I have not even scratched the surface of explorations about the significance of this structure related to Matthew’s theology, or the number ten, or why only (or primarily) Isaiah quotations, or why this order of quotations, or a whole host of other things.  Nevertheless, I think this structure does have strong explanatory power for understanding the overall structure of Matthew’s Gospel as well as the clustering of different traditions within it.  In the following explanation, the last three sections are dealt with at somewhat greater length due to a mixture of ambiguous prophetic source texts, larger sections of material, or more smaller units of tradition clustered together.  The insight afforded into Matthew’s compositional technique, though, makes the reading worthwhile!

Brief justification of the ten fulfilment clusters:

1)   1:1-2:23  –  ‘The virgin shall bear a son’
[Mt 1:23 = Isa 9:6] Isaiah 9:6 is a prophetic announcement to the ‘house of David’ about the birth of an heir, specifically contrasted with the kings of Damascus, Samaria and Assyria.  Its quotation in Matthew 1:22-23 is an editorial comment about the angel’s announcement to the Davidic heir Joseph about the son to be born to the virgin betrothed to him (1:18-21).  Explanation of Joseph’s lineage is necessary for the application of this Isaianic prophecy, hence the genealogy of 1:1-17.  Other stories about the birth of the Davidic king are then added after Joseph’s response to the announcement (1:24-25), and specifically those which contrast His kingship with the kingship of Herod – the story of the Magi (2:1-12), Herod’s reaction (2:13-18), and Herod’s heir (2:19-23).

2)  3:1-4:11  –  ‘The way of the Lord in the wilderness’
[Mt 3:3 = Isa 40:3]
Isaiah 40:3 describes a voice announcing the coming of the Lord, and both here in Isaiah and in Matthew’s quotation the phrase ‘in the wilderness’ is found between ‘calling’ and ‘prepare’, meaning that it can be understood to relate to either verb.  It could be that the voice is calling in the wilderness, or it could be that the prepared way of the Lord is in the wilderness.  The quotation of this verse in Matthew 3:3 applies explicitly to John the Baptist calling out in the wilderness, and follows it with further explanation of what this ‘voice’ was saying (3:7-12).  But then we find that the Lord Himself goes out to this ‘voice’ in the wilderness to ‘fulfil’ all righteousness (3:13-17), and after that is led out ‘into the wilderness’ for fasting and testing (4:1-11).

3)  4:12-7:29  –  ‘A great light in Galilee’
Mt 4:15-16 = Isa 9:1-2]
Isaiah 9:1-2 prophesies a ‘great light’ coming to the land of Galilee, and elaborates over the next few verses about the ‘child to be born to us’, the ‘wonderful counsellor’ who will rule ‘on the throne of David’ (Isa. 9:6-7).  Matthew’s quotation of this verse in 4:14-16 is explicitly connected with Jesus’ return to Galilee and especially His choice of Capernaum, ‘in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali’, as His home base (4:12-13), from whence He began to preach of the coming kingdom (4:17).  It is no surprise therefore that 4:18-22 recounts the call of the sons of Jonah and of Zebedee ‘by the way of the sea’, and 4:23-25 continue with Jesus’ ministry ‘throughout all Galilee’ resulting in people coming to Him from the entire territory of ‘Syria’, including ‘beyond the Jordan’ as specified in the quoted verses.  After these Galilee-focussed stories, we are then introduced to the teaching of the ‘wonderful counsellor’ in 5:1-7:29, interestingly beginning with blessing on those ‘poor in spirit’ and ‘mourning’ (5:3-12; compare those ‘in anguish’ and treated ‘with contempt’ in Isaiah 9:1-2), followed by the ‘light of the world’ shining in 5:14-16.  The rest of the Sermon on the Mount follows on after that introduction, apparently as a collection of general sayings suitably arranged together.  I suspect that the teachings found here are probably those that didn’t naturally relate to themes in later parts of the book, and some of these teachings were probably already linked to each other in normal preaching (for example, 5:13 linked to 5:14-16, or 5:17-48 connected with each other).

4)  8:1-10:42  –  ‘He carried away our diseases’
[Mt 8:17 = Isa 53:4]
Isaiah 53:4 is one verse from the description of the Suffering Servant that focuses specifically on ‘sickness’ and ‘pains’, and was therefore entirely appropriate as a prophetic summary of Jesus’ healing ministry.  We therefore find a collection of traditions on the theme of ‘healing’ after the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the account of the leper (8:1-4) naturally linking what ‘Moses commanded’ about healing with the preceding teaching (compare 5:17-48).  Jesus then returns to Capernaum where he heals the centurion’s boy (8:5-13) and Peter’s mother-in-law (8:14-16), after which Isaiah 53:4 is quoted.  Then we have a larger group of tradition about Jesus travelling from Capernaum to the ‘other side’ of the sea and back again, in order to heal the demoniacs (8:18-9:1).  Clearly the aphorisms in 8:19-22 and the calming of the storm in 8:23-27 had become linked with this story in the tradition and are therefore included here even though they don’t refer to healing specifically.  After this we have another healing, of a paralytic, back in Capernaum (9:1-8), and this is followed by Jesus’ statement about ‘healing’ the ‘sick’ that is associated with tax collectors (9:10-13), and hence the description of the calling of Matthew in 9:9.  I suspect the question about fasting in 9:14-17 was connected in tradition either with the preceding story of Jesus dining or the following story of being called away from his teaching.  Then there is the double healing story of the woman and girl in 9:18-26, the healing of the blind men in 9:27-31, and the healing of the mute demoniac in 9:32-34.  From 9:35-10:42 we have another cluster of teaching tradition associated with the sending out of the Twelve, but it is clearly connected to the theme of healing, both by the circumstances that prompted Jesus to send them (9:35-10:1), and by the beginning of Jesus’ instructions that repeat the idea of ‘lost sheep’ (10:5-6; compare Isaiah 53:6) and the connection of their preaching with healing (10:7-8), as representatives of Jesus Himself (10:40-42).

5)  11:1-12:45  –  ‘Bruised reeds & Gentile judgement’
[Mt 12:17-21 = Isa 42:1-4] Perhaps the reference to the last ‘Servant Song’ in Isaiah 53 had prompted Matthew to consider next the first ‘Servant Song’ in Isaiah 42.  The quotation of Isaiah 42:1-4 in Matthew 12:17-21 is quite extensive, and lays emphasis on ‘judgement’, the ‘nations’, and Jesus’ care not to quarrel or break ”battered reeds’.  All the stories and teaching in this section are linked to this quotation in one way or another.  The story and teaching about John the Baptist (11:2-19) sprang naturally to Matthew’s mind with its description of John as ‘a reed shaken by the wind’ (11:7) whom Jesus takes care not to ‘break’.  Then there is an example of ‘judgement’ on the ‘nations’ (11:20-24), followed by another small collection of sayings that focus on dealing gently with the ‘weary and heavy-laden’ (11:25-30).  On either side of the quotation of Isaiah 42, we find two clusters of tradition about the Pharisees.  The first, 12:1-16, describes two stories from apparently the same Sabbath day that both speak of Jesus’ compassion, the first associated conceptually with breaking reeds (walking through fields of ripe grain on stalks), and the second clearly showing Jesus avoiding quarrelling with the Pharisees (12:14-16).  The second, 12:22-37, describes another healing to which the Pharisees objected, and Jesus’ response to their accusation.  His teaching mentions judgement on them three times (12:27, 31-32, 36-37).  Finally we have one further sermon of Jesus on the subject of ‘judgement’ and the ‘nations’ (12:38-45), paralleling 11:20-24.

6)  12:46-13:58  –  ‘Hearing and understanding’
[Mt 13:14-15 = Isa 6:9-10] The fourth and fifth sections of Matthew’s gospel were connected by their association with the Servant Songs of Isaiah, and the sixth and seventh sections are connected by their Isaiah quotations being found within the teachings of Jesus Himself.  Isaiah 6:9-10 is actually the essential message that Isaiah was commissioned to preach, paradoxically being a command to God’s people that they continue to hear his teaching but fail to understand and therefore respond to God and be healed.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the seven parables about the kingdom of heaven are enclosed by two stories of Jesus’ mother and siblings, the first (12:46-50) emphasising the importance of being an obedient disciple and apparently already connected in the tradition with the continuation of Jesus’ teaching that day in a boat near the beach.  The second (13:53-58) describes the rejection of the teaching of Jesus by His hometown, which resulted in fewer miracles there in accordance with the end of the passage quoted from Isaiah.  As for the seven parables that form the bulk of this section, they were collected here because Jesus Himself had related these verses in Isaiah with His own use of parables – ‘hidden’ teachings that had to be explained in private to the disciples, to whom had been granted “to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven”.

7)  14:1-16:12  –  ‘Teaching the traditions of men’
[Mt 15:8-9 = Isa 29:13] To those who know the book of Isaiah well, the idea of teaching being heard but not understood that we read of in Isaiah 6 is naturally associated with Isaiah 29.  Isaiah 29:10-12 describes the ‘entire vision’ as a ‘sealed book’ that cannot be read or understood by either the literate or illiterate, and then after 29:13 (the verse quoted in Matthew), Isaiah prophesies God concealing the wisdom of the wise (Isa. 29:14), and causing the deaf to ‘hear the words of a book’ and the blind eyes seeing (Isa. 29:18).  The central verse of that passage, Isaiah 29:13, condemns the outwardly righteous teachers of Judah whose supposed ‘reverence’ for God consists of ‘commands of men learned by rote’.
Jesus applied this verse directly to the Pharisees of His own day, and this prophetic fulfilment for Jesus’ own generation is the focus of an extended section of Matthew’s gospel.  The key to understanding this is found at the very end of the section – 16:11-12 – where Matthew explains that Jesus was speaking against ‘the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ rather than against ‘the leaven of bread’.  The preceding teaching of Jesus about the five loaves for five thousand and the seven loaves for four thousand (16:5-11) connects the ideas of ‘bread’ and ‘teaching’ with the Pharisees, and these themes have drawn together all the stories and teachings in this section.  First, Matthew had to tell the stories of the feeding of the five thousand (14:13-21), with the events that led to it (14:1-12) and followed from it (14:22-36), and the feeding of the four thousand (15:29-39), in order to explain Jesus’ summary of these events in 16:5-11.  After each of the two stories he put a question by the Pharisees and Jesus’ response, the first involving the eating of ‘bread’ without washing hands (15:1-20), and the second requesting a ‘sign from heaven’ (16:1-4), which in the context of the crowds having been given ‘bread from heaven’ like Moses (compare 14:19) was a rather stupid request.  And then at the centre, between the [5,000 + washing hands] and [4,000 + sign from heaven], Matthew has put the little story of Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman, in which Jesus describes His healing ministry as ‘the children’s bread’ – comparing healing with ‘bread’ just as teaching is compared with ‘bread’ in 16:12.

8)  16:13-21:11  –  ‘The King coming to Zion, gentle’
[Mt 21:5 = Isa 62:11 & Zec 9:9] Until this point, every one of Matthew’s primary quotations has been taken exclusively from the book of Isaiah, although sometimes he goes on to refer to some of the ‘lesser’ prophets, for example Hosea (Mt. 2:15) and Jeremiah (Mt. 2:18) in the first section, or Asaph the psalmist (Mt. 13:35) in the sixth section.  The last three of Matthew’s sections were all inspired by passages in Isaiah, but they are each associated to a greater or lesser extent with expressions from other prophets, either because Jesus Himself made the connection, or because another prophet had elaborated more specifically on Isaiah’s earlier prophecy (or both).
Isaiah 62:11 says, “Behold, the LORD has proclaimed to the end of the earth, say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Lo, your salvation comes; behold his reward is with him, and his recompense is before him.'”.  Zechariah 9:9 seems quite clearly to reflect this verse both contextually and verbally, saying, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!  Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem!  Behold, your king is coming to you; he is just and endowed with salvation, humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  However it was Zechariah’s elaboration that suited Matthew’s purposes better than Isaiah’s prophecy, describing the arrival of this ‘saviour’ to Jerusalem more specifically as a humble king.  In fact, Isaiah 63:1-6 describes the coming One in kingly terms, and then Isaiah 63:7-14 describe the ‘saviour’ also as a patient and compassionate shepherd of rebellious people.  Zechariah’s prophecy was simply a more convenient summary of Isaiah’s prophecy.
When we come to Matthew’s Gospel, however, the quotation of this verse is left until the very end of the section, to the point when Jesus actually arrives in Jerusalem.  Even so, as many scholars have noted, the journey towards Jerusalem begins in 16:21 when Jesus “began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem”.  This teaching was connected to Peter’s rebuke of Jesus and by Jesus (16:22-23), which was likewise associated in the tradition with Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (16:13-20) and with Jesus’ association of discipleship with ‘taking up one’s cross’ (16:24-28), a passage also referring to ‘coming in His kingdom’.  Tradition recorded that Jesus’ transfiguration happened ‘six days later’ (17:1), which may also be connected in some way back to His prophecy in 16:28.  The teaching on the way down the mountain about Elijah and the suffering of the Son of Man links back neatly to Jesus’ prophecy of going to Jerusalem to suffer (17:9-13), and the healing at the bottom of the mountain was also linked to this story (17:14-21).  Jesus and His disciples progress to Galilee in 17:22-23 with another prophecy of suffering, and then to Capernaum in 17:24-27, with a story that refers to the ‘kings of the earth’ – one aspect of the ‘humble king’ theme spanning this entire section.  18:1-20 is another cluster of teachings, this time associated with the idea of the ‘greatest’ in the kingdom being those who ‘humble’ themselves like children.  The teaching about forgiveness in 18:21-35 has been included here because of its parable about ‘a king and his slaves’, and after a reference to Jesus leaving Galilee and arriving in Judea beyond the Jordan (19:1-2), the teaching about divorce in 19:3-12 has been similarly included because of the conclusion of the discussion where Jesus advocates the humiliation of making oneself a ‘eunuch’ for the sake of the kingdom.  Two stories are then recounted next to each other in order to contrast them – the first being about Jesus blessing children (19:13-15), and the second about a wealthy man who would not follow Jesus (19:16-26).  Then there is a prophecy about the twelve disciples who have left everything to follow Jesus sitting on twelve thrones as kings with Jesus (19:27-30), and a parable connected to this prophecy by the phrase ‘the last shall be first’ (20:1-16).  As Jesus is ‘about to go up to Jerusalem’, He again predicts His suffering (20:17-19), and contrasts His own serving with the selfish request of the disciples to sit enthroned on either side of Jesus (20:20-28).  They leave Jericho towards Jerusalem, meeting two blind men on the way (20:29-34), and approaching Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives, Jesus commandeers a donkey to explicitly fulfil the prophecy of the humble king coming to Jerusalem (21:1-3).  Finally, Jesus actually enters Jerusalem to the praise of the crowds (21:6-11), who describe him as ‘the prophet Jesus’, neatly paralleling the discussion of Jesus’ identity in 16:13-14.

9)  21:12-25:46  –  ‘House of prayer’ or ‘robbers’ den’
[Mt 21:13 = Isa 56:7 & Jer 7:11] Isaiah 56 begins with a call to ‘preserve justice and do righteousness, for my salvation is about to come…’, and then defines this righteousness as specifically observing the sabbaths, even if one is a eunuch or a foreigner.  God’s intention is that His temple become known as ‘a house of prayer for all the peoples’ (Isa. 56:7).  Jeremiah 7 gives the opposite case, as Jeremiah is told to ‘stand in the gate of the LORD’s house’ to proclaim the coming destruction of the temple because of failure to defend the alien, orphan and widow, and instead breaking the commandments; the ‘house of the LORD’ has become a ‘den of robbers’ (Jer. 7:11).
As for Matthew’s use of this judgement of Jesus against the temple in Jerusalem (21:12-13), in a very general way the quotation of scriptures about the temple justifies his inclusion of any traditions associated with the temple in the last week of Jesus.  Although this may perhaps be thought to be a poor excuse for any stories or teachings that I can’t seem to connect to the primary quotation, it is worth remembering that the last week of Jesus was indelibly imprinted on people’s minds, much as the last scene of a film or the last chapter of a novel might be.  We would expect teachings or happenings of this week to have become connected to each other in the retelling of the tradition, such that any programmatic quotation holding the section together would necessarily have to be quite general.
In the last section the quotation came at the end, whereas here it kicks off the whole section right at the beginning, as Jesus first enters the temple (21:12-13).  Healings and shouting children are both located specifically in the temple (21:14-16), and the departure to Bethany is to set the scene for a judgement oracle against ‘this mountain’ (i.e. the ‘mountain of the LORD’ – the Temple Mount) paralleling the judgement on the fig tree (21:17-22).  Jesus’ return to the temple is met with a challenge to His authority over the temple (21:23-32), as He had established the day before when He cleansed it of traders.  The short parable of the vineyard, associated with Jesus’ response concerning John the Baptist, provides the link in the tradition with the following parable of the tenants of the vineyard (21:33-46).  The next parable about the wedding banquet (22:1-14) is linked to the prophecy quotation through the mention of the destruction of the city (22:7), as this directly parallels Jeremiah’s prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction as Shiloh had been destroyed (Jer. 7:12-14).  The segments of narrative from 22:15 to 22:46, involving the testing of Jesus by different groups, are all focused on the Pharisees.  They join with the Herodians to question Jesus in 22:15-22, and then when they hear that Jesus has also silenced the Sadducees (22:23-33), they return to challenge Jesus again, this time about the greatest commandment (22:34-40).  After answering them, and ‘while the Pharisees were gathered together’, Jesus asked them a theological question related to Psalm 110:1, for which they have no answer.  All of these five stories are background for the following denunciation of the Pharisees in 23:1-31, including a central section of Jesus’ rebuke involving swearing oaths ‘by the temple’ (23:16-22).  His sentence of judgement on them (23:32-36) is then expanded in 23:37-39 so that the coming destruction of Jerusalem and her ‘house’ is ultimately blamed on the Pharisees, equivalent to the ‘robbers’ of the quoted prophecy.  This implicit judgement against the temple, as Jeremiah too had prophesied, is made explicit when Jesus tells His disciples of the timing of the destruction of the temple in 24:1-31.  The parable of the fig tree in  24:32-35 has probably been added here because of the earlier connection between a leafy fig tree and coming judgement on the temple.
In the remainder of the discourse that follows in 24:36-25:46, there is very little that might be connected specifically to the temple, the only possible reference being the ‘house’ in 24:43, although reading the temple into this reference would require special pleading.  The reference to the temple in the sequence of end times events in 24:15 (marked by an editorial comment ‘let the reader understand’) is seemingly the only explicit reference to the temple in all of Jesus’ response to His disciples’ questions about the timing of the temple’s destruction.  Even so, Matthew had a lot of material from Jesus’ teachings that was associated with His ‘coming’, and the end times, and this seemed an appropriate place in which to group all such teachings.  The disciples therefore ask Jesus not only about the timing of the temple’s destruction, but also about ‘the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age’ (24:2).  It is the link to the ‘coming of the Son of Man’ that justifies the inclusion of the false Christs teaching in 24:23-28 within the sequence of end times events (24:4-31), and the addition of the days of Noah teaching (24:36-42), the thief parable (24:43-44), and at the end the parable of the sheep and goats (25:31-46).  The idea of an unexpected arrival in the Noah teaching and thief parable explain the further inclusion of the parable of the good and evil slaves (24:45-51) and the parable of the ten virgins (25:1-13), and finally the parable of the talents (25:14-30) was added after the parable of the ten virgins to parallel the parable of the good and evil slaves in 24:45-51.  Thus we find a sort of chiastic pattern between 24:36 and 25:46: (A) Son of Man coming like Noah’s flood & like a thief; (B) parable of good and evil slaves; (C) parable of ten virgins; (B’) parable of good and evil slaves; (A’) Son of Man coming to judge between sheep & goats.  In any case, the clustering of traditions is still explained at the initial stage with the quotations of temple prophecies in 21:13.

10)  26:1-28:20  –  ‘Shepherd and sheep’ (& Galilee)
[Mt 26:31 = Zec 13:7 & Isa 53:4-6] This final section gives us the most problematic of the Isaiah quotations, and yet whether or not one accepts my defence of its Isaianic character below, it is hard to deny the way traditions throughout this final section have been clustered around the scripture quotation in Matthew 26:31-32.  If that is so, my opponent would have to explain why a non-Isaianic prophecy serves a function elsewhere granted almost exclusively to prophecies from Isaiah.
The first point to note, therefore, is that Jesus’ citation of scripture in 26:31 very closely resembles Zechariah 13:7, the only differences being a future (‘I will strike’) instead of an imperative (‘Strike!’), and an elaboration of ‘sheep’ to ‘sheep of the flock’.  From a verbal similarity point of view, there seems to be little doubt that Jesus was quoting Zechariah here.  However the problem comes when one looks at the context of Zechariah 13:7.  In that passage God’s hand then turns ‘against the little ones’, two-thirds of whom perish, and only one third of whom survives to repent and be purified – hardly an appropriate summary of what happened to Jesus’ followers after He died.  On the other hand, the image of a shepherd struck by God and sheep scattered appears also in another quite well-known passage, namely Isaiah 53:4-6.  These verses begin by describing the servant ‘bearing’ our sicknesses and ‘carrying’ our pains, much like the shepherd who ‘gathers the lambs in his arm and carries them in his bosom’ (Isa. 40:11), yet this Servant is ‘struck down by God’ for our sake.  Then in Isaiah 53:6 we read how each one of us like sheep ‘has turned to his own way’, while the LORD causes all our iniquity to fall on the shepherd.  Effectively, God is declaring, ‘I will strike the shepherd while the sheep are scattered.’  The surrounding context is what makes this passage in Isaiah a more probable inspiration for Matthew, and possibly Jesus, even if as with section eight he was able to find a more succinct summary of the prophecy in Zechariah.
As we know, Isaiah 53 goes on to prophesy the resurrection of the Suffering Servant, and similarly Jesus connects His quotation of Zechariah 13:7 directly with resurrection, saying, ‘But after I have been raised, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.’ (Mt. 26:32)  We will find as we explore this section that Matthew here chooses to treat Jesus’ own prophecy of resurrection and return to Galilee as having an equivalent ‘clustering’ weight to the quoted prophecy from Isaiah (via Zechariah).  In this way the whole statement of Jesus in 26:31-32 fulfils the function of a crystallising agent for the traditions of this section, much as His statement about the temple was used to draw together the preceding section’s traditions.
Therefore 26:1-2 begins the section with Jesus warning His disciples of His impending crucifixion, and follows this with a reference to the conspirators gathering to plan Jesus’ death (26:3-5).  The story of Jesus being anointed with perfume is linked to His coming burial (26:6-13), and Judas then leaves to betray Jesus to the chief priests (26:14-16).  All of the traditions associated with the Passover meal in 26:17-29 are connected with Jesus’ betrayal or death, and Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denials (26:33-35) merely emphasises that the sheep will all be scattered.  His prayers in Gethsemane are due to Him being grieved ‘to the point of death’ (26:36-44), and the account of His betrayal by Judas and arrest (26:45-56) refers twice to the importance of the fulfilment of scriptures associated with His death.  26:57-58 introduces Peter on the periphery of the Sanhedrin trial scene, to parallel the account of his threefold denial immediately after it (26:69-75).  In between, the story of the trial culminates in three expressions for the way they ‘struck’ Jesus, again modelled on the quoted prophecy.  Just as Peter ‘went out’ weeping, leaving Jesus, so 27:1-10 describes the ‘scattering’ of another of the sheep, this time Judas.  The tradition of his death and the use of the betrayal money is recounted here probably because the prophecies associated with it were so directly applicable and self-evident.  The account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate is an interesting one (27:11-31) particularly for its emphasis on the way Jesus was scourged by Pilate (27:26) and beaten by the Roman soldiers (27:30) – both examples of ‘striking’ the shepherd.  Furthermore, Jesus’ silence during both trials is most likely intended to reflect on this precise emphasis in Isaiah 53:7.  After the actual crucifixion (27:32-38), verses 39 to 49 describe how Jesus was ‘despised and forsaken of men… not esteemed’ (Isaiah 53:3).  At the point of Jesus’ death, the description of the resulting earthquake is separated to enclose a reference to Jesus’ coming resurrection (27:50-54), as He Himself had prophesied.  Once the shepherd has been struck down, we find that the sheep begin to gather again – first the women who had followed Him (27:55-56) and then also Joseph of Arimathea (27:57-61).  We then have a further tradition from the time Jesus’ body was in the tomb, that is directly associated with the prophesied resurrection (27:62-66), and this is followed with the account of the resurrection itself (28:1-7).  The angel who reports the resurrection to the women tells them, ‘behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you’ – a direct reference to Jesus’ own prophecy in 26:32.  As the women are going back to the disciples, Jesus Himself meets them and again reiterates the command to see Him in Galilee (28:8-10).  28:11-15 addresses a common Jewish objection of Matthew’s day to the report of Jesus’ resurrection, and then he concludes his Gospel back in Galilee, in fulfilment of Jesus’ prophecy (28:16-20).

We therefore have in Matthew’s Gospel essentially an early collection of traditions about Jesus that has been deliberately grouped around ten different verses or passages from Isaiah that were commonly believed to point prophetically to Jesus and His ministry.  I think it quite likely that the purpose of this Gospel was for use by Christian churches as an authoritative assembly of teaching about Jesus, helpfully arranged around ten themes of prophetic fulfilment taken from Isaiah, one of the most popular of Old Testament books in the Early Church.  We too would do well to recover an understanding of the genuine fulfilment Jesus brought to both the Law and the Prophets, fulfilling all righteousness in His ministry and sacrifice, and in His resurrection becoming Himself the greatest of the prophets, indeed, one greater than any prophet – the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

March 5, 2009

What is the point of theology? Thoughts on Matthew 13

Filed under: Exegesis — alabastertheology @ 2:03 am
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Why this blog?

With a blog containing “theology” in the address, I must acknowledge at the very start that all true ‘study of God’ begins in His own revelation of Himself.  Without this, we are just blind men making declarations to each other about the nature of colour.  As Moses put it, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons for ever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” (Deut. 29:29)  Or as Paul expressed, even more beautifully, “… a true knowledge of God’s mystery – Christ – in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col. 2:2-3)

My aim in this blog is to publish in an easily accessible way some of the thoughts I am having about theology, particularly relating to biblical studies.  The Bible has been my favourite book from before I could read, my parents have given most of their lives to helping it be translated into new languages, and I have had the opportunity to study it with some of the best scholars in the world.  That said, I make no claim to be any more an ‘expert’ in the Bible than any other believer; without a mature love for Jesus and for others, knowing “all mysteries and all knowledge” adds up to precisely “nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2).  Even worse, it can lead to arrogance, and with that, deception and ultimately terrible judgement.

Ephesians 4:11-16 makes it clear that the different gifts of leadership in the church have been given by Jesus to equip believers “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God”, no longer deceived by every passing wind of doctrine and deception.  It is only in unity, growing and learning together in a context of practical application, that we will truly know the truth about Jesus.  For this reason I want to submit my various thoughts about Him and His word to the community of believers – not only to broaden people’s understanding, but to fit these ideas together with those of others and see the Church “grow up in all aspects into Him”.

Matthew 13:3-52 – A paradigm for Christian theologians

While pondering on what a Christian paradigm for theologians might be, I considered Colossians 2:1-12 (a passage that inspired me during my initial university years), but was drawn to Matthew 13 instead as an explanation from the mouth of Jesus Himself.  The concluding statement of His lecture on the subject talks about ‘scribes of the kingdom’ – a perfect description of those of us God has blessed with a particularly intellectual approach to faith.  The section of Matthew’s gospel in which this lecture is found is actually 12:46 – 13:58, but that will be the subject of another blog post coming shortly.

Structure:  Jesus’ lecture about ‘scribes of the kingdom’ is made up of two parables, each with their explanation.  However, each parable is separated from its interpretation by a digression, and similarly the explanation of the second seems to have been interrupted with a digression.  So the pattern we have, then, is the following:
A Parable of Good & Bad Soil (13:3-9)
C Digression [increase, Isaiah quotation, value] (13:10-17)
A’ Explanation of Parable of Good & Bad Soil (13:18-23)
B Parable of Good & Bad Seed (13:24-30)
C Digression [2 parables of increase, Psalm quotation] (13:31-36)
B’ Explanation of Parable of Good & Bad Seed (13:37-43)
¬  Digression [2 parables of value] (13:44-46)
¬  Explanation of parallel Parable of Good & Bad Fish (13:47-50)

Themes:  In the first parable, the ‘seed’ is the “word of the Kingdom” and the ‘good soil’ on whom the seed was sown is “the man who hears the word and understands it”, producing fruit.  On the other hand, in the second parable, the ‘good seed’ are the “sons of the kingdom” themselves, and the ‘field’ is the “world”.  This means that the first parable focuses on how the revelation (‘seed’) is received by the soils, i.e. value, whereas the second parable focuses on how the believers (‘good seed’) continue to grow until the final judgement, i.e. increase.

The first digression dealt with both themes, on either side of the quotation from Isaiah.  In the first part Jesus taught that the revelation of the kingdom will surely increase for the sons of the kingdom, and in the second part Jesus taught that the revelation of the kingdom is of great value such as many prophets and righteous men of old longed to see it.  Similarly, the two parables of the second digression both teach that the ‘tree’ of believers will increase until all the world is filled, while the two parables of the third digression both teach that the value of this hidden treasure of revelation is such that it is worth selling everything else to buy.

There is an alternation, though, between the personal and the corporate in these parables.  The first parable is all about personal valuing of the ‘word of the kingdom’, while the second is about the corporate increase of the ‘sons of the kingdom’ in the world.  In a similar way, the personal increase of revelation and the corporate value of it as described in the first digression is inverted in the corporate increase of ‘sons of the kingdom’ in the second digression, and by the personal value of revelation in the third digression.

Exegesis:  We find, therefore, a very carefully structured lecture on both personal and corporate aspects of revelation as they involve the ‘sons of the kingdom’.  The crowds who have ears are urged to hear (13:9), although Jesus makes it clear that this revelation has only been granted to certain individuals (13:11).  What is more, those who have received revelation of the ‘seed’ of the word must not stop there, but rather understand it and bear fruit like good soil (13:23); the disciples themselves are urged to hear, since they have ears (13:43).  But on the other hand, while they can be confident that the increase of the knowledge of the kingdom will continue in the world despite the presence of sons of evil (13:31-33, 43), its treasure is valuable enough to require one who understands its worth to sell everything else in order to acquire it (13:44-46).

Jesus’ summary statement to the disciples in verse 52 clarifies and confirms these analyses.  The disciples (and we who ‘understand’ like them) are said to be ‘scribes… of the kingdom’, and equated with heads of households who are able to reveal from their collection of treasure “things new and old”.  This clearly combines both value and increase, since the collection of treasures is continually growing.  If we connect this with the parables in 13:44-46, it would suggest that the scribe of the kingdom whose mind has been opened to God’s revelation must keep themselves ready to sacrifice everything for the joy of new treasures discovered.  If we connect it instead with the parables in 13:31-33,  it would suggest that the treasures of knowledge of the kingdom, like the sons of the kingdom themselves, will continue to grow until every part of the world is affected.

Application:  In response to Jesus’ teachings here, there are several appropriate responses: (1) Let us thank God that He has sovereignly chosen to reveal to us the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven in an ever-increasing way;  (2) Let us properly appreciate the awesome privilege we have to explore truths that “many prophets and righteous men” in previous generations longed to understand;  (3) Let us be sure to hear the word and understand it, allowing it to take root in us unchoked by greed or anxiety, and bear much fruit;  (4) Let us be confident in the unstoppable advance of the knowledge of the kingdom that is spreading throughout the earth even now, and contribute to its advance;  (5) Let us as ‘sons of the kingdom’ take care to avoid being ‘stumbling blocks’ or practising lawlessness, but rather endure to the end in righteousness;  (6) Let us never lose our readiness to ‘sell everything’ purely for the joy of ‘owning’ particularly valuable mysteries of the faith; and finally, (7) Let us be faithful as teachers in the Church to keep bringing out from our treasures both new and old insights to be appreciated by others.

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