Thursday, May 08, 2014

Part XVIII Matthew – Matthew’s Flashback to John the Baptist

by John Shelby Spong

We suggested last week that Mark, the author of the first gospel to be written, introduced his story of Jesus with a narrative appropriate to the Jewish New Year celebration, a festival called Rosh Hashanah. In that narrative, Mark developed one Rosh Hashanah symbol after another. Jewish New Year was the celebration in which these people focused on the hope that the Kingdom of God would soon dawn in human history. So Mark portrayed John the Baptist as the “New Elijah,” the mythical figure, who would come before the messiah to prepare his way and thus the herald of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

At Rosh Hashanah the shofer, the ram’s horn, would be blown to gather the people together in order to hear the proclamation that the Kingdom of God is drawing near and to urge upon them repentance as the way to prepare for its arrival. John the Baptist was thus portrayed as a human shofar. To cement the identification between John the Baptist and the “New Elijah,” Mark also dressed John the Baptist in the clothing that in the Old Testament was identified with Elijah, “a garment of camel’s hair with a leather girdle about his waist.” He placed John the Baptist in the wilderness, which was the location identified with Elijah and, finally, Mark gave him Elijah’s wilderness diet to eat, “locusts and wild honey.”

There was to be no mistake. If the messiah was at hand, Elijah, the promised forerunner, had to come first to prepare the way and to announce the arrival; John was clearly being cast in this “Elijah” role. So Mark opened his gospel with John acknowledging Jesus as messiah, baptizing him and proclaiming himself quite secondary to Jesus. He then went on to tell us what might actually have been a fact of history, namely that John was arrested and imprisoned by King Herod. With John thus removed from the stage it was, Mark proclaimed, time for Jesus to step out of John’s shadow and to launch his public career. Jesus did so, said Mark, with these words: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” With the work of the forerunner now complete John the Baptist literally disappeared from Mark’s gospel.

We do need to note, however, that while John the Baptist would not be seen again physically in this gospel, he would be mentioned by Mark when he described the rhetoric of Herod and when he described the rhetoric of Jesus. Both of these references will be of crucial importance to our understanding the way that the gospels of both Mark and Matthew were organized.

This portrait of John the Baptist as the “New Elijah” was understood by Mark’s original Jewish readers because they were themselves familiar with the Jewish Scriptures. It would not have occurred to them to think that Mark thought he was describing literal history when he wrapped John inside this series of Elijah symbols. Even the narrative of the beheading of John the Baptist was itself simply the retelling of an unfulfilled vow uttered by Queen Jezebel against Elijah. Mark would suggest that Queen Herodias carried out this vow on John, the “New Elijah,” thus solidifying the Elijah connection. In Matthew’s gospel the story of John the Baptist being imprisoned by Herod and remaining there until his execution would provide Matthew with a way to re-introduce John, which is exactly what he did when he arrived at the celebration of Rosh Hashanah and needed a new John the Baptist story. What John the Baptist had done for Mark, namely to serve as his primary Rosh Hashanah figure, he would now do for Matthew, even though for Matthew it would have to come much later in his narrative and would constitute a backward look. Let me put this difficult concept into its Jewish context.

Mark did not write his gospel as an exercise in either history or biography, but as a liturgical document designed to relate the memory of Jesus to the liturgical year in the synagogue. Because Mark’s gospel was written to be read in worship, he began it with a story that illumined the Jewish holy day of Rosh Hashanah or the Jewish New Year, which was where Mark determined his proper starting place should be. That was why he turned John the Baptist into the “New Elijah,” a Rosh Hashanah figure.

Elijah’s purpose, fulfilled in John, was to prepare the way for the messiah’s arrival by announcing that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Then, as Mark’s gospel unfolded, he concluded his story by relating the details of Jesus’ crucifixion against the background of the Passover observance. By making these two Jewish celebrations the background for both his opening and his closing narratives about Jesus, he reveals that the book he was writing was designed to be used in synagogue worship.

If Mark, however, opened his gospel with a Rosh Hashanah story and closed it with a Passover story, his gospel would have covered only six and a half months of the Jewish liturgical year, roughly from Early October to late March. That is the realization that helps us to understand why Matthew felt compelled to expand Mark. Matthew wanted to provide Jesus readings for the entire year. So Matthew had to front end load Mark to cover the five and a half months that came between the Passover story of Jesus’ final days and Rosh Hashanah, which had served as Mark’s starting place.

We have already looked at the way Matthew filled up that time by adding the genealogy, the birth narrative, the content of the preaching of John the Baptist and expanding the story of Jesus’ temptations so that they corresponded to the trials of Moses in the wilderness. By this time Matthew had arrived at the Jewish Festival known as Pentecost, which as its name implied came fifty days after Passover. Pentecost, which was also called Shavuot, marked the Sinai moment of Jewish history when the Torah was supposedly given to the people through Moses.

Here Matthew portrayed Jesus against the background of Shavuot. That is what the Sermon on the Mount was all about. Jesus was the new Moses on a new mountain, giving a new interpretation of the Torah. That carried Matthew’s front-end load of Mark up to the beginning of chapter 8. The next major Jewish celebration in their liturgical year was Rosh Hashanah, which was where Mark had begun. When Matthew arrived at Rosh Hashanah, however, he had to deal with the fact that he had already used Mark’s Rosh Hashanah story to inaugurate Jesus’ public ministry. So while Matthew had finally caught up with Mark he still had to find a different way to deal with Rosh Hashanah. So what did he do? He borrowed a page from the technique of Cecil B. DeMille, the famous early 20th century Hollywood producer of religious films, and did a flashback!

He took the data about John the Baptist contained in Mark’s account of his being arrested and imprisoned and with it created a new John the Baptist story to serve him as his Rosh Hashanah story in the same way that John had served Mark at the opening of Mark’s gospel. Matthew had John the Baptist from his prison cell send a message to Jesus asking him to clarify his messianic credentials: “Are you the one who is to come or do we look for another?” Jesus in Matthew’s account does not answer him directly. He rather tells John’s messengers to go tell John what you see and hear and then he recites a text that every Jew reading this material would recognize. It came from the writings of Isaiah and had long been used as the reading from the prophets at the celebration of Rosh Hashanah.

Isaiah had written about the signs that would become visible when the kingdom of God dawns. Jesus quoted and expanded Isaiah’s words from chapter 35, to make this be a Rosh Hashanah story. Go back and tell John that “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk; lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the good news preached to them.” So Matthew now has his Rosh Hashanah story in place and John the Baptist has been reintroduced. What he has to do next is to provide Jesus stories to connect Shavuot, which ends with the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5, 6 and 7), with his new version of a John the Baptist story appropriate to Rosh Hashanah with which he opens chapter 11.

That connecting material is what we find from Matthew 8:1 to 10:42. First there is a series of miracle stories, which not coincidentally illustrate the Isaiah text. In these stories Jesus is shown acting out the signs of the Kingdom. He cleanses a leper, cures a centurion’s servant, heals Peter’s mother in law of a fever, casts out demons, stills a storm, loosens the tongue of one who is both deaf and mute, restores the withered limbs of a paralytic, stops the flow of blood from a hemorrhaging woman, raises from the dead the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue and gives sight to two blind men. This string of miraculous deeds is interspersed with sayings that reflect the urgency of the time for the Kingdom is about to arrive.

When these miraculous stories are complete then Matthew has Jesus go into the second of his five long teaching segments, which begins with the reminder that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few and continues with Jesus giving his disciples instructions about how to live in that interregnum between the first coming of Jesus and the day when he will come again to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. Both the miracles and the teaching segment are designed to provide Jesus stories for the Sabbaths between Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah. Matthew is now ready to move into his flashback and to begin to tell his Rosh Hashanah story.

Please observe that this is how what we now refer to as “miracles” came to be associated with Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. Miracles for Matthew were not remembered deeds, but signs of the Kingdom embodied in Jesus to establish his messianic credentials. It is interesting for us to note that miracles do not get associated with the memory of Jesus in the Christian tradition until the 8th decade of the Common Era. Paul gives us no hint that miracles, understood as supernatural events, were ever associated with the life of Jesus. If, however, Jesus was to establish his messianic credentials and to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, then the signs of the Kingdom had to be identified with his life.

A closer look at these stories of human wholeness replacing human brokenness and health replacing sickness will reveal that Matthew believed that both Jews and Gentiles would be recipients of the kingdom. Jesus was the expected messiah of the Jews, but the Kingdom of God would break down all boundaries until Gentiles would be united with Jews.

Matthew is painting a magnificent portrait and telling a powerful story of what the presence of God can do in human history. It is a Jewish story, not a literal story. If we can develop Jewish eyes and look at this gospel through Jewish lenses, it can once again be an invitation for us to journey into life, love and wholeness, rather than to remain on our journey into the pits of religion.


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