I return this week to our study of Matthew’s gospel after a rather long hiatus, which allowed me the opportunity to address other pressing topics such as my visit to a Nazi Concentration Camp in what is now The Czech Republic, an analysis of the impact of communism on Eastern Europe and finally, what it means to stand at the boundary between life and death. It is now time to pick up this remarkable gospel once again. My thesis guiding this study is a simple one. This gospel, I contend, was written by a Jewish author to a community of the followers of Jesus made up of Jewish people. It assumes, therefore, a shared experience, a shared knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, a shared liturgical background and a shared awareness of the Jewish tradition of story-telling called “midrash,” that is, the practice of retelling and sometimes even magnifying the details as that story is retold about a figure living in the present.
So long as those who read this gospel were Jews its meaning was communicated quite well. By the year 150 CE, however, the Christian Church had become almost exclusively Gentile, so none of this former commonality of understanding existed. That was when people, not understanding the Jewish background of this gospel, began to assume that the story was historically and literally true. That was how biblical literalism entered the Christian movement. To say it differently biblical fundamentalism is a Gentile heresy!
In our study of Matthew, we had reached a good place for our pause, having arrived at the narrative of the Transfiguration of Jesus, which, I suggested, was the way the story of Jesus was related to the midwinter celebration of Dedication or Hanukkah in the Jewish synagogue. Dedication was created to allow an annual observance of a time during the period of the Maccabees when the light of God was said to have been restored to the Temple. Matthew was writing his gospel some fifteen or so years after 70 CE when the Roman army had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in the climactic moment of the Jewish-Roman war, which began in Galilee in 66 CE and ended at Masada in 73 CE. That was why in the Transfiguration story the light of God was poured out on Jesus, not the Temple.
There was no Temple so the followers of Jesus were proposing that Jesus was now to be thought as the new temple, the new meeting place between God and human life. This is also why in the Transfiguration story the law, symbolized by Moses, and the prophets, symbolized by Elijah, were said to have been transfigured with Jesus. That is also why the heavenly voice affirmed Jesus as God’s “unique” or “beloved” son. No, this does not validate the language of what came to be call “the Incarnation,” but what it does do is to expose how foreign the incarnational language of the 4th century creeds and later the language of the traditional doctrines and dogmas of the church really is. Traditional incarnational language reflects a world view that no longer exists. One who insists on using that language in the 21st century has clearly not yet done the hard theological work of moving Christianity beyond its theistic definition of God as a “supernatural being” who lives above the sky.
From this midpoint in Matthew’s gospel we can now look back and discern anew the principle, which is organizing Matthew’s memory of Jesus. His gospel was designed to provide stories that related Jesus to the entire liturgical year of the synagogue. The synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke, were originally written to be liturgical documents; they were never intended to be historical works or biographies.
When one embraces this reality, one understands that the gospels are interpretive works designed to relate Jesus to the Jewish Scriptures, to Jewish history and to the worship pattern of the synagogue. They are more like the painting of a Jewish portrait than they are biographies.
The process of telling the Jesus story in the context of the liturgy of the synagogue was begun when the account of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion was moved into the season of Passover and that became the interpretive framework against which the story of the cross was told. This allowed the gospel writers to develop what had originally been a Pauline idea, that Jesus was to be understood as “the new Paschal lamb.” In the book of Exodus, it was the blood on the Paschal lamb, placed on the doorposts of Jewish homes that was said to have hurled back from that home the power of death. In this Jewish explanation the cross became the symbolic doorpost of the world and the blood of the new Paschal Lamb on that cross was now said also to have broken the power of death for all who come to Jesus under the symbol of his blood. Those original followers of Jesus did not think in terms of being redeemed “by the blood of Jesus;” nor did that destructive and guilt-producing aspect of what came to be called “substitutionary atonement” ever enter their Jewish minds. Once again the language of “Incarnation’ and “atonement” simply does not speak to the 21st century.
Once the connection between the Passion of Jesus and the Passover observance was made, however, it was easy to see how the rest of the great celebrations of the Jewish liturgical year were soon associated with other remembered events in the life of Jesus.
Mark, the first of the gospel writer, clearly began his book at the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. That was why he turned John the Baptist into the new Elijah to prepare the way for the messiah. That was Elijah’s role in Jewish mythology. John was portrayed as saying that since the Kingdom was dawning the people must prepare with penitence. So, Mark’s gospel began with Rosh Hashanah and ended with Passover. This meant that Mark must have had Jesus stories for each of the liturgical observances that fell between his opening and closing celebrations. So, we search Mark’s gospel in an attempt to locate and to identify them. First we find a series of “healing-cleansing” episodes right after he has introduced John the Baptist that fit eloquently the theme of Yom Kippur, the next Jewish holy day. Included in this series of stories is the account of the call of Levi from his job as a tax collector for the Roman government. Jesus enters that place of uncleanness and lifts Levi into being one of the “Twelve.” This is perfect, also, for Yom Kippur and it comes in Matthew’s text at exactly the right place to coincide with Yom Kippur, which was ten days after Rosh Hashanah. Then five days later the eight-day harvest festival known as Sukkoth arrived. Mark moves immediately into a series of harvest parables, providing “Jesus material” for all eight days of the Sukkoth celebration and, again, in exactly the right place. When the festival called Dedication arrives, two months later Mark is the first to interpret Jesus as the new Temple on whom the light of God falls in the narrative of the Transfiguration. Once more, a Jesus story gives new content to a Jewish liturgical celebration.
When Mark’s gospel was complete, he had provided Christian readings to fit in with each of the great days in the Jewish calendar from Rosh Hashanah to Passover. That meant, however, that he had covered only six and a half months of the year. That is why Mark is the shortest of the three synoptic gospels. That is also why first Matthew, and then Luke, felt compelled to expand Mark to provide Jesus readings for the whole year, which is exactly what each did. The data seem clear to me that the synoptic gospels were developed against the background of the liturgical cycle of the synagogue.
In our study of Matthew thus far, we noted how he has front-end loaded Mark, for he has to cover the Sabbaths at the beginning of the Jewish year that Mark had omitted. This meant that Matthew had to provide Jesus stories to carry the worshipers from the end of Passover in the spring to Rosh Hashanah in the fall, roughly that would mean from early spring to early fall. When we analyze Matthew’s content we discover that is exactly what he has done. In chapter one Matthew has created a genealogy that takes up 17 verses. Then he develops an elaborate birth story that fills the rest of chapter one and all of chapter two. Next he expands the story of John the Baptist by sharing with his readers the content of John’s preaching, which pads chapter three. Then he gives his readers the details of what the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness actually were, which serves to fill up chapter four.
Finally, he arrives at the late spring celebration the Jews called Shavuot or Pentecost, a festival that Mark did not cover, since it came before Rosh Hashanah, where Mark’s gospel began. Shavuot recalled liturgically the time when Moses received the Torah from God on Mount Sinai. So Matthew creates the Sermon on the Mount to be the Jesus material to be used during Shavuot, which was observed with a twenty-four hour vigil. Those twenty-four hours were divided into eight three-hour units. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is a new interpretation of the Torah using the eight beatitudes and his eight commentaries, one on each of the Beatitudes to create those eight three-hour units. Matthew based the Sermon on the Mount on the 119th psalm, which was written for use at this 24 hour vigil. That is why it is the longest psalm in the psalter, it had to provide a reading for each of the eight units in the 24 hour vigil. When one reads the content of this psalm one discovers that it is a hymn to the beauty and wonder of the Torah. The Sermon the Mount in Matthew consumes chapters 5, 6 and 7.
Beginning with chapter 8, Matthew starts to build toward Rosh Hashanah, arriving there in chapter 11. We know that Rosh Hashanah has come when we discover that he introduces via a flashback, John the Baptist to be his Rosh Hashanah figure. Then he follows Mark’s story line until he reaches the Transfiguration which he relates to the festival called Dedication or Hanukkah, the last great celebration before the end of the Jewish liturgical year. This was where our study of Matthew’s gospel paused. He now heads toward Passover where the story of the cross will be told. We will start there when this series resumes.