Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Matthew Sources and the Hebrew Scriptures

By John Shelby Spong

Reading the Bible with any real comprehension in the 21st century is not an easy task. The gospels are a product of the 1st century, a dramatically different time, and they reflect a vastly different culture. They do not translate easily. Most Christians do not realize that Christianity itself was born in the womb of first-century Judaism, and it did not leave that womb until some 50-60 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. To say it another way, the Christian movement did not separate itself from the synagogue until late in the ninth decade of the Christian era. This means that the gospels of Mark, Matthew and probably Luke were all written while Christianity was still a movement within the synagogue, and that only John, the last gospel to be written, reflects a time after the synagogue and the church had separated.

While the disciples of Jesus were still members of the synagogue they would have listened to the Hebrew Scriptures being read Sabbath by Sabbath and they would have searched within them for what they were certain were messianic clues, which they believed would help them process and understand the experience they had had with Jesus of Nazareth. That is, they looked to the Hebrew Scriptures to enable them to understand both his meaning and his appeal, and the gospels reflected the fact that they had wrapped the memory of Jesus inside their understanding of these Scriptures. As fellow members of the synagogue, they knew the stories of their Jewish past and would recognize when part of that tradition was being used first in preaching and later in gospel writing to illumine the Jesus experience.

By the middle years of the second century of the Christian era, however, the followers of Jesus had become almost exclusively a Gentile movement. This meant that the Jewish knowledge necessary to understand the gospels, which had been products of the synagogue, had disappeared among the Gentile faithful. So it was that these Gentile Christians began to manifest profoundly ignorant attitudes toward the gospels, which resulted in both a tendency toward literalization and in a heightened sense of the supernatural and the miraculous. That distortion plagues the Christian Church to this day. These ideas became quite popular in Gentile Christian circles, even though they distorted badly the relationship of the story of Jesus to the Hebrew Scriptures and especially to the writings of the prophets.

The historical reality is that among the disciples of Jesus, the process had actually been the other way around. Convinced as these followers were that Jesus was the promised messiah, they poured over the messianic expectations that permeated Jewish biblical thinking, especially after the time of the Babylonian exile in the first quarter of sixth century BCE, and then forced their memories of Jesus to conform to what they determined were scriptural prophetic expectations. Thus the “Servant” passages of II Isaiah (Is. 40-55) shaped many aspects of the first written version of the story of the cross and, in the process, Jesus was forced to look more and more like Isaiah’s “Servant.” The Shepherd King of II Zechariah (9-14) was also a determinative figure. The Shepherd King, who came riding to his people on a donkey only to be removed for thirty pieces of silver by those who bought and sold animals in the Temple, is a good illustration of how the process worked.

In addition to this, narratives from the lives of the great figures of Jewish history were regularly magnified and then retold about Jesus of Nazareth, so that when we read the gospels, we should not be surprised to discover that events that occurred in the lives of former Jewish heroes – people like Moses, Samuel, Elijah and Elisha among others – were simply retrofitted by the gospel writers and then retold as if they had happened in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Matthew employed this technique over and over again in his story of Jesus’ birth. Everything that Matthew related as happening to Jesus during his infancy was in fact designed to place his life into what Matthew believed were the messianic expectations chronicled in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Matthew was also writing apologetically, that is, he was seeking to defend Jesus and the Jesus movement against charges that were currently being leveled against them. There was first what came to be called “the scandal of the cross.” Jesus had been crucified, a fact that seemed to violate all messianic expectations. The passion stories in both Paul and the gospels speak to this issue. When critics in the 9th decade of the Common Era began to question Jesus’ paternity, something that might be called “the scandal of the crib” arose, and Matthew, who was the first author to introduce a narrative about the birth of Jesus, responded directly in that narrative to those charges.

First, we need to be aware, as Matthew surely was, of the deep, historic division in Jewish history between the tribe of Judah and the ten other tribes, who came to be called the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Judah was ruled by the House of David. The Northern Kingdom never established a long-term ruling family, but identified its people as the descendants of Joseph, the favorite son of the patriarch Jacob, who, after wrestling with an angel, had his name changed to Israel. If Jesus was truly to be messiah, his first task was to bring together the Judah traditions in Hebrew history with the Joseph traditions of Hebrew history.

Matthew did this first in the genealogy by going from Abraham through Judah to David and Solomon and then through the royal house of David, which ruled Judah from 1000 BCE to 586 BCE. The Judah root of Jesus’ life was thus clear. Next he introduced into his story an earthly father, whose role it was to protect and to legitimize Jesus and gave to him the name Joseph. To make his readers certain of his purpose, he then developed the biographical details of this Joseph character right out of the Hebrew Scriptures. Please be aware that no father of Jesus had ever been mentioned anywhere prior to the writing of Matthew. There are no references to Joseph in any of the epistles of Paul (51-64) and none in Mark, the first gospel to be written (ca.70-72). There are some who argue that both the Q document and the Gospel of Thomas also antedate Mark. I do not agree with that, but I simply note that, even if that were to be proved to be true, there is no reference to Joseph in either of those sources.

Matthew appears to be the one who chose the name of Joseph for the character he would create as the “earthly” father of Jesus. This Joseph was then assigned a primary role in Matthew’s story of the virgin birth. In that patriarchal society, someone had to be the guardian of this vulnerable, pregnant woman and eventually of her infant and presumed illegitimate son. Matthew made those the duties of Joseph, the earthly father. Once this character became part of his story, Matthew then had to flesh out his creation with content. It should come as no surprise that he would draw that content from the story of the patriarch Joseph in Genesis (37-50).

In this Genesis story, one discovers three primary identifying marks associated with the patriarch Joseph. First, he has a father named Jacob. Second, he is associated again and again with dreams. In the Genesis story, the young Joseph is always dreaming about how important he will become. In his adult life, while in prison, he becomes the interpreter of the dreams of two people hauled into prison by Pharaoh. One was the Pharaoh’s butler and the other was the Pharaoh’s baker. Joseph’s interpretations of these two men’s dreams come true. Then he becomes the interpreter of the Pharaoh’s dreams, and he rides on his ability to interpret dreams into political power in Egypt. The Genesis patriarch, Joseph, is overwhelmingly identified with dreams. Third this Joseph is also given the task in Jewish history of saving the “people of the covenant” from death. This threat of death to the Hebrew people came at that time in the form of a famine in which starvation was real. How did Joseph save them? He took them down into the land of Egypt where food was still plentiful.

Now look closely at the character of Joseph as drawn by Matthew in the birth narrative that opens his story of Jesus. Matthew makes three claims for this Joseph. First, he tells us that Joseph had a father named Jacob. Second, Matthew portrays his Joseph, just like the patriarch Joseph, as being constantly associated with dreams. God never speaks to him except through a dream. In a dream God, or the “angel of the Lord,” instructs Joseph to marry Mary, assuring him that the child she is having is “of the Holy Spirit.” In a dream, Joseph is instructed to flee from death at the hands of Herod. In a dream, Joseph is directed to return to their Bethlehem home following the death of Herod, and then in a dream, Joseph is told to seek the safety of a town in Galilee called Nazareth, so that the child might grow up in relative security. Finally, just as the role of Joseph in the book of Genesis was to save “the people of the covenant” from death by fleeing to Egypt, so now Matthew’s Joseph will save the messianic figure of Jesus from death by fleeing with him down to Egypt.

This is not literal history. Joseph is a literary creation, not a person of history and the “flight to Egypt” was a literary device to link Jesus to Moses. This Joseph then disappears from the biblical story as soon as the birth narratives are complete and is never portrayed again in any context. Jewish readers would recognize Matthew’s sources. Later Gentile readers would not and because they did not understand would proceed to assume that they were reading history.

At every point in Matthew’s story, the symbols, drawn out of the Hebrew Scriptures, are not just present, but they have been incorporated into the memory of Jesus. When this series continues, we will examine those quoted passages. They come from Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Hosea and a final mysterious source. Matthew’s message is clear. He has interpreted Jesus as the fulfillment of the expectations found in the Jewish Scriptures.


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