Thursday, June 26, 2014

Part XX Matthew – Introducing Yom Kippur and the Jewish Concept of Atonement

John Shelby Spong

In this study of Matthew I have sought to demonstrate that this gospel is not organized on the basis of the remembered life of Jesus, as most people have traditionally assumed. It is rather written using the template of the liturgical year of the synagogue. That means that we must read this gospel, not as a biography, but as a liturgical document. The reason Matthew portrays the public ministry of Jesus as lasting only one year, for example, has nothing to do with the length of that ministry; it has to do with the fact that Matthew is relating his story of Jesus on the basis of the Sabbaths of a single year of synagogue worship. He was leaning overtly on the work of Mark, the first gospel writer, upon whom Matthew depended significantly.

Mark began his gospel with a Jesus story appropriate to Rosh Hashanah, a festival celebrating the Jewish New Year, which comes in the early fall. It was the story of John the Baptist announcing the dawn of the Kingdom of God and calling people to repentance, prior to his baptizing Jesus, who, John was proclaiming, embodied that Kingdom. Then Mark ended his gospel with a Jesus story appropriate to the synagogue celebration that we call Passover, which comes in the early spring. This was his narrative of the crucifixion of Jesus, who was now identified with the paschal lamb of Passover. So Mark’s gospel begins and ends with these two Jewish holidays.

The time between Rosh Hashanah and Passover, however, is only six and a half month of the annual calendar. The reason Matthew felt the need to expand Mark and the reason that Matthew’s gospel is 40% longer than Mark’s, is that Matthew wanted to create a book of Jesus stories that would carry the Jews, who were the original followers of Jesus, through the entire annual cycle of the synagogue worshipping year. Consequently, Matthew’s gospel then proceeds to relate the life and message of Jesus to each of the major holy days in the annual Jewish liturgical year. He also followed those holidays in their exact and correct order. This fact would have been very clear to the original Jewish audience for which Matthew’s gospel was so obviously written.

The Christian faith, however, was destined to become a Gentile movement, and so by 150 CE, there was hardly a Jew left in Christianity. That was the moment when Matthew’s deeply Jewish gospel began to be read, studied and to have commentaries written on it almost exclusively by Gentile people. These Gentiles were not only ignorant of the Jewish symbols and meanings that permeated this book, but they were also deeply prejudiced against all things Jewish and thus they never sought to understand the Jewish liturgical year that organized Matthew’s gospel. Instead, they began to read this gospel as if it were a literal story about a person of history named Jesus of Nazareth. Biblical fundamentalism, I contend, was born in Gentile ignorance and Gentile misunderstanding of the gospels, which were essentially Jewish scriptures. Our hope in this study is to recapture the original Jewish meaning in Matthew’s portrait of Jesus, a meaning that is stunningly different, I would argue, from the naive fundamentalism that still dominates much of Christian thinking today.

It is almost impossible for anyone to see how the holy days of the Jewish liturgical year shaped Matthew’s telling of the Jesus story so long as they are unfamiliar with the Jewish calendar. That is why we have spent so much time in this series pulling the background of the liturgical year of the Jews out of the content of Matthew’s gospel. So let me once again review that calendar.

This Jewish liturgical calendar, at least as it is reflected in the book of Leviticus, began with the month of Nisan. Passover was celebrated on the 14th and 15th days of Nisan, or between the second and third Sabbaths of that month, and was thus the first major holy day of the Jewish year. Nisan came roughly in late March of our year, just as life and light were breaking forth after the darkness and death of winter. It thus suited the message of Easter, which the Christians saw as the culminating reality of the crucifixion. Matthew, still following the lead of Mark, has placed the crucifixion, the climax of his story of the life of Jesus, into the season of Passover, a liturgical, not a historical placement. Then Matthew proceeded to tell two Easter stories, one about the women coming to the tomb in Jerusalem on Easter morning, and the other about the disciples meeting Jesus on a mountain in Galilee.

These stories served to fill the third and fourth Sabbaths of Nisan. So Matthew was destined to begin his Jesus story on the fifth Sabbath of the Jewish year. The gospel lesson in Matthew for that fifth Sabbath would be the genealogy of Jesus, which would link Jesus to his Jewish past by showing him as the descendant of Abraham, David and the time of the Exile. For centuries this lagging of the start of the Jewish calendar by five Sabbaths served to hide the connection between Matthew’s story and the liturgical year of the synagogue.

This also means that when this five Sabbath lag is finally grasped, the first Jewish holy day that Matthew would confront in his chronology would be Pentecost or Shavuot, which comes seven weeks and one day after Passover. Shavuot marked the time in Jewish history when Moses was said to have received the Torah from God on Mt. Sinai. Matthew filled the weeks between his Easter story and Shavuot with the genealogy, the story of Jesus’ birth, the baptism and the temptations, which were, as we have seen earlier, thinly veiled Moses stories. When Shavuot arrived, he was ready to portray Jesus as the New Moses on a new mountain giving not a new law, but a new interpretation of the Torah. It was a Shavuot story, but one clearly related to Jesus and not to Moses.

Matthew, as we also noted earlier in this series, built the Sermon on the Mount on the form of Psalm 119, the psalm used in the synagogue observance of Shavuot, a twenty-four hour vigil. Matthew began the Sermon on the Mount with eight beatitudes, followed by eight commentaries on each of these eight beatitudes in reverse order. He is writing a Christian liturgy. This liturgy, which we call “The Sermon on the Mount,” consumes chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew then proceeded to fill the Sabbaths between Shavuot, in late May to early June, and Rosh Hashanah, in late September to early October, with narratives that prepared his readers for the message of the Jewish New Year. We have already noted how Matthew created a flashback to bring John the Baptist once more into his narrative in chapter 11, so that John could again be the Rosh Hashanah figure in his gospel as he had been in Mark. Mark made the appearance of John and his baptism of Jesus his Rosh Hashanah story. Matthew could not hold the baptism of Jesus for four and a half months until he caught up with Mark, so the flashback technique was used to re-introduce John when Matthew had finally arrived at the Festival of Rosh Hashanah.

Quoting Isaiah 35, the lesson from the latter prophets, normally read in the synagogue for Rosh Hashanah, Matthew noted that Isaiah spoke of the signs that would accompany the arrival of the Kingdom of God into human history: “The blind will see and the deaf hear, the mute will sing and the lame leap,” said the prophet. On the Sabbaths that were covered in his chapters 8, 9 and 10, Matthew told about how Jesus had acted to fulfill Isaiah’s expectations. He had Jesus heal people in each of Isaiah’s categories so that in his flashback, when the messengers came from John, who was in prison, asking whether Jesus was in fact the messiah who would inaugurate the messianic Kingdom, Jesus could point to these messianic acts as evidence. This was, we suggested, how stories of Jesus as a miracle worker first entered the tradition. They were messianic stories being wrapped around Jesus, not supernatural acts that happened in time and space. Matthew’s Jewish readers would have understood that and would not have been tempted to think of these signs as literal events. Matthew had now provided Jesus stories appropriate to the celebration of Rosh Hashanah.

In the Jewish year, Rosh Hashanah was celebrated on the first day of Tishri, the seventh month of the year. Following Rosh Hashanah on Tishri 1, came Yom Kippur on Tishri 10 and then the Jewish festival of the harvest, called by several names, among them Sukkoth, Tabernacles and Booths, which began on Tishri 15 and lasted for eight days until Tishri 22. The first two of these celebrations, coming so closely together, came to be known as the “High Holy Days,” while Sukkoth was probably the most joyous celebration of the whole year. So, if Matthew’s gospel is to be understood as relating Jesus stories to the liturgical year of the synagogue, we should expect Yom Kippur stories to follow Rosh Hashanah stories and then for Sukkoth stories to follow shortly thereafter.

So our study of Matthew’s gospel now continues and we will discover that his next stories are all appropriate to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In that study we will begin to understand how the concept of “atonement” not only entered Christianity, but also came to dominate it. In time “atonement theology” presented us with the appalling mantra “Jesus died for my sins,” which is still widely used today. It is one more striking example of a Gentile misunderstanding of the Jewish worship symbols, but it is probably the most important one, because nothing has distorted Christianity more than that concept of “atonement.” To that story we will return.


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