Thursday, April 24, 2014

Part XVII Matthew – The Story of Jesus from Shavuot to Rosh Hashanah

by John Shelby Spong

After a three-week hiatus to consider some pressing theological questions and political issues we return this week to our story of Matthew’s gospel. It was indeed a good place to break away momentarily from Matthew’s text because in the Sermon on the Mount he had reached his first climax and would begin now to introduce his second. Allow me to review how this gospel has been developed up to this point, to get us all back on board.

Matthew began his gospel by introducing some brand new material into the Jesus narrative, material that had never before appeared anywhere in the developing Christian tradition. First, there was his genealogy in which he traced the ancestry of Jesus through about 1800 years of Jewish history. In this genealogy he touched the Jewish mountain peaks from the call of Abraham to found a new people, to the establishment of the dynasty of King David, to the bitter time of defeat at the hands of the Babylonians and the subsequent exile of the Jewish people into a foreign land. This genealogy culminated with the birth of Jesus.

Was this genealogy accurate history? Was Matthew following some ancient literal record? Of course not! No one then or now has 1800 years of family history on file. Matthew was simply proposing this genealogical reconstruction to demonstrate the thesis he intended to develop in his narrative. He was claiming for Jesus the DNA of his nation. He was asserting that Jesus had in fact fulfilled all of the messianic requirements about which the Jews dreamed. He was heir to the throne of King David. He was born in David’s city of Bethlehem. Cosmological signs marked his birth Matthew was laying the foundation to claim that Jesus was the expected Jewish gift to the world.

In this same genealogy, Matthew then proceeded to shock his readers by including four women, who were, according to their sources of their stories in the Old Testament, guilty respectively of incest, prostitution, seduction and adultery. In this strange maneuver, he was actually mounting his defense of the divine nature of Jesus, which was to culminate in his introduction of the account of Jesus’ miraculous birth while still claiming that God could bring holiness out of any and every human failure or distortion. Jesus was of God, he was asserting. He was the child of the Holy Spirit. Matthew, however, quickly informed his readers that this story was not about biology. He was countering anti-Jesus criticism that suggested that Jesus was “base born.”

It was a powerful narrative, but clearly it was not a literal narrative. Next, Matthew brought Gentiles in the form of the wise men to this Jesus who was to him the “brightness of God’s rising,” and in their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, he signaled the themes of the life that was about to introduce in his gospel. Jesus, Matthew declared, is to be viewed as the King of the Universe, which makes the gift of gold appropriate; he is to be viewed as a revelation of the meaning of God, which makes the gift of frankincense appropriate, and he is to accomplish his purpose through his death, which makes the gift of myrrh appropriate. It never occurred to Matthew to think that anyone would ever literalize this magnificent word portrait that he was intent upon painting. His own Jewish audience would have recognized what he was doing because they were familiar with the Jewish Scriptures from which he was so skillfully drawing.

Matthew then inserted into this account of Jesus’ miraculous beginnings a biblical episode on which he intend to pivot, as the adult story of Jesus begins. He referred back to the biblical account of a wicked king named Pharaoh trying to eliminate God’s promised deliverer in his infancy by killing all the male Jewish babies in Egypt, to tell the story of another wicked king named Herod, who tried to do the same thing to Jesus. Matthew’s major theme of Jesus as the new Moses was now beginning to emerge in this gospel.

We then traced the development of this theme. At the moment of the Exodus, Moses split the waters of the Red Sea to move the Hebrew people from bondage to a new self-identity. Jesus at his baptism now led his people out of the “bondage of sin” by splitting the heavenly waters, so that “living water,” i.e. the Holy Spirit, could bring his followers into a new self-identity as those who live in “the glorious liberty of the Children of God.” Recall that the Genesis creation story defined the “heavens” as the firmament, which separated the “waters above from the waters below.” Moses split the waters below; Jesus, the new Moses, split the waters above. Then Jesus, still following the Moses pattern, entered the wilderness. For Jesus it would be for forty days, for Moses it had been for forty years. In that wilderness, both Jesus and Moses would face similar trials or temptations. In both cases the first temptation or trial had to do with the shortage of food, the second with putting God to the test and the third with worshiping something other than God. Once again, this was not the recalling of history, but the result of attempting to parallel the lives of Moses and Jesus.

Then arriving at the first great climax of his gospel, Matthew portrayed Jesus as the new Moses on a new mountain, giving, not a new Torah, but a new interpretation of the Torah. This is what we now call the Sermon on the Mount. It carries Matthew’s text through chapters 5, 6, 7 and ends only when Jesus comes down from preaching on the mountain. Lest there be any doubt that Matthew ever thought that this Sermon on the Mount was a literal event that took place in time and history, we noted that he based this sermon on the 119th psalm that just happened to be the psalm used at the 24-hour vigil called Shavuot, which celebrated Moses receiving the Torah from God on Mount Sinai. Matthew was an interpretive genius, painting a deeply Jewish portrait of the coming of the messiah and thus of the inauguration of what he referred to as the “Kingdom of Heaven.”

Matthew next has Jesus leave the mountain and return to the valley of pain and suffering. He will then proceed to relate a series of incidents that will carry his story to his next climax, the celebration of the Jewish New Year, called Rosh Hashanah, which came three months or so after Shavuot. In the manner in which Mathew deals with Rosh Hashanah, we will find the clue to the way his entire gospel is organized. In order to make that clue obvious, our story continues.

Be reminded that Matthew had Mark in front of him as he wrote. We know this because Matthew incorporated almost 90% of Mark directly into his gospel. By comparing the two gospels, we can study the places where Matthew changed Mark, where he modified Mark and when he omitted Mark. As this study is engaged, we begin to see the outlines of Matthew’s values, his insights and maybe even his soul.

We also observe the acknowledged fact that he has expanded Mark. His gospel is some 40% larger than Mark. What was there, we wonder, that caused Matthew to view Mark as in need of expansion? Next we look at where Matthew placed the expansion material. It was not just scattered around in the text of Mark. Matthew has significantly front-end loaded Mark. A quick look at the first eleven chapters of Matthew will reveal the presence of massive amounts of extensively new non-Marcan material. Mark, for example, has no genealogy, no birth narrative and no description of the nature of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness and no Sermon on the Mount. Mark provides us with very little of the content of the preaching of John the Baptist. These additions represent substantial material newly introduced into Christianity by Matthew. Yet when we move toward the final part of Jesus’ life we discover that Matthew tracks Mark very closely from about chapter eleven on, including almost identical passion stories. If Matthew’s gospel represents a front-end load to Mark, his primary source, and if both wind up telling the story of the cross against the background of the Passover celebration, then is there a clue to be found in the liturgical calendar of the synagogue that would cause this kind of gospel organization to make sense?

I think there is. We first look at how Mark opened his gospel. He has cast John the Baptist in the role of the New Elijah, who comes to prepare the way for the arrival of the messiah and the Kingdom of God. Matthew turns John the Baptist into a human shofar, the ram’s horn, who gathers the people together, announces the nearness of the Kingdom and urges them to prepare with penitence. Every Jewish reader of Matthew’s gospel would recognize each of these elements as something drawn from the New Year liturgy of Rosh Hashanah. So Mark’s gospel appears to begin with Jesus stories appropriate to Rosh Hashanah and to end with Jesus stories appropriate to Passover. That means that Mark started his gospel with Rosh Hashanah and ended it with Passover, thus covering only six and a half months of the annual Jewish calendar. If Matthew front-end loads Mark, is he not attempting to cover with Jesus stories the five and a half months that Mark has failed to cover? Is this not the reason Matthew felt a compelling need to expand Mark? The liturgical year needed to be made whole.

The compared texts of these two gospels seem to point to this conclusion. Matthew is clearly following the liturgical calendar when he portrays the Sermon on the Mount as a Shavuot story. Next he provides Jesus stories for the time between Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah, until his narrative can reconnect with Mark who starts at Rosh Hashanah and then together they will follow the balance of the synagogue’s liturgical year, climaxing it with the account of Jesus’ crucifixion at Passover and the Easter story on the first or first two Sabbaths after Passover.

We are now ready to begin our analysis of those Jesus stories that Matthew used to enable the transition time between Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah to be covered. That starts when this series resumes.


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