Questioning the Gospel

Bible Study notes on early chapters of Matthew

Jesus’ Early Years (Chs. 1–2)

Matthew’s Gospel starts at an earlier stage in the life of Jesus than Mark’s account with the genealogy of Jesus, but does not, at the beginning, refer to him as the Son of God. The genealogy begins with Abraham, Jesus has a solid Jewish ancestry and is linked with the patriarchs (though this was true for Jews, Samaritans and Edomites, and Muslims). Abraham is significant because he was called by God, as was David (Jesus has royal ancestry also, apparently), who is also mentioned in the introduction to part one of the tripartite generation, the three parts close with David (a Messianic but flawed king), the exile to Babylon (God’s judgement which was the beginning of God’s salvation and Jesus called Messiah. This suggests that salvation is a key theme of the Gospel, although we will need to review this later.

Jesus’ Royal Ancestry? — It is important for Matthew to show that Jesus is a descendant of David, that he has a claim to be ‘king of the Jews’. Though the Jews still hoped for a messianic kingly ruler it was some time since they had their own king. The last king that we read of in the OT is Zerubbabel (another messianic figure). Interestingly, nothing is made of Jesus’ purported natural kingship either by himself or by the Gospel writer. The only attributions of kingship to him are messianic declarations or taunting statements from his enemies. If Jesus was of kingly descent it fitted with the fulfilment of prophecy. But does genealogy matter to God?

There are some interesting characters in the genealogy, particularly the women. Tamar, is a multiply wronged woman, who gave birth to the child of her father-in-law Judah after masquerading as a prostitute. Rahab, is the only woman of this name in the OT and (another) prostitute saved by Joshua’s spies, it is only from Matthew that we learn that she was the mother of Boaz (‘the redeemer’). The other OT Rahab is the mythical serpent in Job (ch.9, 26), Psalms (87, 89) and Isaiah (ch.30, 51). Solomon’s mother had been the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba is not mentioned by name because it was more important to name Solomon’s other parent?), she is another wronged woman who conceives through adultery. There is a problem at the end of the genealogy though, all of the people listed are ancestors of Joseph, he is not the father of Jesus, he is Mary’s husband. This must surely deconstruct the genealogy, its significance is more important than Jesus’ physical forebears? We can only wonder who Mary’s ancestors were. She is presented as more important than Joseph (she gave birth to Jesus) but less important than the other women, because she does not fit into the genealogy? Matthew is saving his bombshell of Jesus’ other origin via the Holy Spirit while also not being explicit about Joseph’s non-involvement. There is no doubt some significance to the thrice fourteen structure (other interesting ‘fourteens’ in the Bible are: Jacob serving fourteen years to get the wife he wanted, who was not one of Jesus’ ancestors; fourteen lambs offered to God as part of the festival of shelters, but not as part of the Day of Atonement; the dimensions of the new temple in Ezek. 40).

Critically, the genealogy does not explain the birth of Jesus, it is not intended to. While Mary was betrothed to Joseph she became pregnant but not with his child. It has been suggested that the account that follows is how Matthew (and Luke) deal with the suggestion that Jesus was illegitimate (like a number of his ancestors? and therefore not a serious issue). This could possibly be true but it is speculation. There are plenty of occasions in the OT where God (or an angel) intervenes to make conception possible, where those involved are ‘barren’ or past childbearing age (like John the Baptist’s mother in Luke). Mary obviously did not fit either category so this event is triply unique, Matthew is telling us that she did not even conceive in the normal way. Interestingly, neither Mark, John nor any of the other NT writers (except Luke) tell us anything about it. Its significance as a NT miracle is downplayed, or even deconstructed. It is, however, a miracle that Joseph believes in, as well he might, an angel appears to him (this does not happen in Luke), rather than to Mary. This happens after he had decided not to go through with the marriage (the angel does not want Jesus to be seen as illegitimate (!) or be brought up in a single parent family, as he is in the Qur’an). We do not learn whether Mary tells Joseph about the origin of her child. The angel also attaches some significance to Joseph as a son of David. How many ‘sons’ did David have by this time? How many of them could trace their ancestry all the way back?

When we first read that it is through the Holy Spirit that she has conceived we must wonder (in the 21st century) what kind of being was Jesus? As a person, a human being, he was totally unlike any other man, at least (apparently there can be ‘normal’, but not necessarily human, virgin births but the offspring are, by genetic necessity, female, a female Messiah was out of the question no doubt). We probably (most of us) do not believe that ‘original sin’ is passed on genetically only by fathers. So Jesus is unique in a very interesting way, less so in his own time, where there were many stories of half-human/half-divine beings (Hercules and Dionysius), though crucially (?) not in his culture. Here Matthew differs very significantly from Mark, for Matthew Jesus is not an ordinary man, he is very different in terms of his origin. But is this an idea that Matthew develops? At this early stage we can take the position that Matthew does not want to present Jesus as a man like us.

Conception by the Holy Spirit is a difficult idea, at the time people had no idea of the process of fertilisation of the ovum. Presumably, God created some male Jewish genetic material, hence Jesus as the beginning of the new creation. This is a theme that Paul develops, but not because he thought that the man Jesus was a special divine creation. We can find a logical link in the later verse — All this happened in order to fulfil … “A virgin will conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel”.

The arguments will be well known — the prophecy (not necessary a prediction of the future but a statement of absolute conviction based on the way God works) would have been fulfilled (or not) in Isaiah’s own time, it may even have already happened or be about to happen. The word used in the original Hebrew does not mean ‘virgin’, this meaning became attached to it via the Greek Septuagint translation. The child in question could actually have been named Emmanuel, he may even (or probably) have been Isaiah’s own son, as he gave his other children symbolic names. Tellingly, Jesus is (obviously) not named Emmanuel, and is never referred to by this name in the NT. Also he could hardly be presented, and is not in the Gospels (except in John’s Prologue), as ‘God’. But most tellingly of all, this verse is used to explain the (scripturally inevitable) miraculous birth of Jesus because ‘it is there’, this is just the start of Matthew’s proof-texting, it is an interpretative gloss which interrupts the flow of the story. In any case, whatever we make of the ‘Virgin Birth’, we will not meet it again, or its implications, anywhere in the rest of Matthew’s Gospel or anywhere else in the NT (except the parallel account in Luke).

Next we learn of the astrologers from the east who come to the royal palace looking for a king. To the religious leaders this means the Messiah, they quote an obscure prophecy from Micah (5.2), which is looking back (rather than forward) to the time of David and is concerned with the contemporary threat of the Assyrians, when Hezekiah was (a good, and therefore David-like) king, and a contemporary fulfilment. In 2 Chr. 32 we read — Hezekiah … and Isaiah … cried to heaven in prayer. So the LORD sent an angel who cut down every fighting man … so that [the king of Assyria — Sennacherib] withdrew disgraced to his own land. When he entered the temple of his god [we can sense what the writer thought of this ‘god’], certain of his own sons put him to the sword (v.20,21). Unfulfilled prophecies were no good, no use to anyone, as the true prophets often pointed out. There were no unfulfilled prophecies pending at the end of the OT period, Matthew does not recognise this. The religious genius (or ‘incarnation’) of Jesus is that he recognised these archetypes (of God’s faithful servants) and symbols, using them as the Word of God in his ministry, except where Matthew has forced them into the narrative. John the Baptist may have provided the impetus for this approach. So, we have identified another theme — fulfilment of prophecy.

The angelic interventions continue in Ch.2 with the astrologers being warned in a dream. Joseph has the same experience. An actual flight to Egypt is just as unlikely as Jesus’ family being in Bethlehem. Matthew does not explain their presence in Bethlehem, other than to place Jesus at the location named in the prophecy. Luke’s explanation of a census (2:1,2) also does not fit, Quirinius was some time later. Matthew does not seem to let the truth get in the way of the story. There is a link here with Joseph and his family moving to Egypt and their descendants being liberated by Moses 400 years later. The proof-text is — Out of Egypt I have called my son (Hos.11.1). This is a misreading, out of context, of When Israel was a youth, I loved him; out of Egypt I called my son. It is ‘prophetic’ but it is also the Word of God for a contemporary situation, looking back to God’s previous act of deliverance. Prophecy looks back at God’s actions in the past to explain the present, and the near future, and to provide hope. One effect of Matthew’s approach is to make (some of) us more suspicious of his narrative.

Herod’s massacre of the infants leads Matthew to another prophecy — a voice was heard in Rama, sobbing in bitter grief; it was Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted, because they were no more (Jer. 31). Jeremiah’s response is — Cease your weeping … they will return. There is no such hope here, Matthew has missed the point of the original words and their link with salvation. Here instead of the people being saved it is Jesus who is saved. When Herod himself has died Joseph is directed to Galilee (mentioned here for the first time in Matthew), as if he had never been there before. In Luke’s gospel both Mary and Joseph start out in Galilee. The name ‘Nazareth’ provides a link with the ‘prophetic’ word — He shall be called a Nazarene, which appears nowhere in the OT. However, we do read of Samson, already mentioned above, who is to be a Nazarite. This statement is not really a prophecy at all, it is the word of God from an angel, a declaration of God’s requirements to those who are benefiting from his intervention. At the end of his narrative of Jesus’ early years, Matthew seals his reputation as someone who both manufactures prophecy and misapplies it.

The Beginning of Jesus’ Ministry (Chs.3–4)

Matthew does not have such a strong link as Mark with the OT at the beginning of this section, as it is not the beginning of his Gospel. We hear John’s message before the prophetic confirmation, this is the order in which Matthew presents new elements. The scripture always comes second to back it up. Differences from Mark here are: the Kingdom of Heaven is near, no mention of being forgiven, Isaiah’s ‘speaking of John’. Matthew introduces the ‘kingdom of Heaven’ (i.e. God, Jews did not like to use the name of God) much earlier than Mark, does he feel the need to make John’s message much closer to Jesus’? — he is Jesus’ messenger and is preaching the same gospel. Or Jesus is even less original than we tend to think, he took over the idea of the kingdom of God from John. Is the ‘kingdom’ the ‘realm of the forgiven’?

Next, we find Matthew stating that Isaiah was actually speaking of John the Baptist. He is less relaxed than Mark who lets the quotation do the work itself, although he has to add the words from Malachi to make it work better. None of these prophecies relate specifically to John and Jesus, they are concerned with contemporary situations — in Isaiah with the return from exile and in Malachi with God’s dealings with a faithless people — Where is the God of justice ? I am about to send my messenger (Malachi?, this is what ‘Malachi’ means, it is the same word that is used for ‘angel’) to clear a path before me. Suddenly the LORD whom you seek will come to his temple; [but!] the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight is here, here already [hence ‘Emmanuel’], says the LORD of Hosts (Mal.2.17–3.1). The messianic prophecies are always more about God than the person God chooses to use. The messianic figures are only indications that God is present, interested and active — this is also the message of John and Jesus. Somehow, God conveys presence, interest and activity without ever appearing, except via angelic messengers and the spoken Word of God. This is why the Scriptures cannot be seen as unfinished at the end of Malachi and why the end of the book is looking both forward and backward. Jesus only ‘fulfils’ by deconstructing the contemporary myth of the Messiah and why he has no real use for the name.

So, who was John preparing a ‘way’ for? The text tells us that it is the LORD, as does Isaiah. However, in Isaiah it is (reasonably) clear that it is the way of the LORD’s purpose, it is Cyrus who delivers the people of Israel and the people (of the LORD) who travel the ‘highway’. Similarly, John is preparing the way for (the kingdom of) God, as does Jesus after him, hence his use of an identical message. He is not preparing the way for Jesus, even in Matthew and Mark, certainly at this point, Jesus is very far from being the ‘Lord’, let alone the LORD. He is subordinate to angels in this respect.

It is interesting that very little development is made of sins, turning to God (repentance), confession and forgiveness, in either Gospel, here or later. The common phrases, indicated above where they are exactly the same in both Gospels, are also interesting, indicating a common and stable source (pre-Mark because Matthew does not vary from Mark but from the core ‘text’).

At this early stage Matthew, and this section is only in Matthew, introduces both enmity towards both of the main types of religious teachers — conservatives and ultra-conservatives — and God’s judgement. This seems to be on the agenda at the end of Malachi, just a few pages away. While this has nothing to do with the text, the canonical closeness is very powerful. He also introduces what we must describe as the ‘fire of judgement’ — here it is concerned with dead wood, unproductive, rotten. There was also a great deal of fire at the end of Malachi — He is like a refiner’s fire (which purifies and purges); the day comes, burning like a furnace; all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble, and that day when it comes will set them ablaze, leaving them neither root nor branch … On the day I take action, you will tread down the wicked, for they will be as ashes under the soles of your feet. We can say that this is the wishful thinking of the pious which permeates both Old and (not surprisingly) New Testaments. It only tends to happen in catastrophic (the Flood, the Exodus) and battle-related events of salvation-significance. It is absent, as it must be?, from normal life and therefore is commonly understood in eschatological terms. Other key examples of fire in the OT are the fire in the burning bush and the fiery furnace in Daniel. This use in Matthew is figurative and illustrative rather than eschatological.

Why is a key element of John the Baptist’s preaching the fact that he was so much less than someone that we can think of as one of his followers? It can hardly be otherwise in the narrative, but we need to ask, and attempt to answer, what it means. Whether the words go back to John or not, their existence as part of the earliest oral tradition indicates that they probably do. They are mainly important not for our understanding of Jesus but of the relationship between John and Jesus, from the perspective of John and the Gospel writers.

We cannot escape the uniqueness of Jesus, but it is not a uniqueness that Jesus claims (except when he was twelve?) or puts forward in his ministry or as part of it. Analysing John’s statement we must conclude that he considers Jesus to be infinitely great (hyperbole, exaggeration for effect), how can anyone be lower than a slave, can slaves have an unworthiness to be someone else’s property (although the Jews were not especially keen on slaves)? He therefore cannot be infinitely great, he is a man, not God. This is logical and obvious at this point in the narrative, if we have no preconceptions, but difficult later from a canonical perspective? So what is John saying — there is a man who is even closer to God (closer than Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Ezekiel?), who has more of God’s spirit (the Elisha to his Elijah?), God’s representative and ambassador on earth, a human angel (!), a man who brings canonical authority to the existing Word of God, a man who always knows both the will and Word of God and has God’s power (inextricably linked to God’s authority), the ultimate human being (at least in his own time!?), a man somehow completely and ultimately tuned in to God, an exemplary human. All this is lost if we think of him as other (or more) than a man. Is it saying that he is the ultimate prophet (which is what the tradition said about Elijah, the herald of the Messiah) or that he is more even than a prophet.

Matthew brings ‘fire’ into his story again, he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, whereas Mark only has the Holy Spirit. For Matthew it is both God and Jesus who will judge. The image is quite odd, the grain (those who repent) will be stored in Jesus’ barn, we must not forget that this is just imagery. The chaff will be burnt with never-ending fire, there is not enough context to tell us whether ‘never-ending’ is particularly significant, it may just mean that the fire will not cease until all the chaff is burnt up. The message of Mark is much more friendly, Matthew is obviously not concerned about upsetting the wider audience (if there was one) and wants his readers to share his perspective of those who are not following Jesus, or John the Baptist. One thing is sure, these are not the words or ideas of Jesus, at least not yet.

The first thing that we notice is that, while Mark writes his narrative from Jesus’ perspective, Matthew is writing from John’s perspective. It also looks as if Matthew had to fill the obvious gap (no prophetic statement can have a loose end) after John’s profession of unworthiness, how could he possibly baptise Jesus? This gives Matthew’s Jesus the opportunity (think of it as a cue) to say that God (though not God’s word) requires it. Did Matthew invent a ‘word of God’ because one did not exist? It is interesting that these words only appear in Matthew. It also seems to obscure the whole significance of Jesus’ baptism — Jesus was amongst the group of people confessing their sins as the condition of baptism, as both Mark and Matthew tell us. As Matthew tells the story here there is no practical purpose, no significance, to Jesus’ baptism. It also looks as if John had forgotten about Naaman, the only other man in the Bible who expresses reluctance about ritual washing in the Jordan. Is Matthew unclear about Jesus’ motivation at the beginning of this section, can he find no other way of explaining (and he has a strong need to explain rather than let the events unfold on their own) why Jesus would actually seek baptism? This is why Matthew says ‘after his baptism’ (baptism according to Jesus’ terms, rather than ‘when he came up out of the water’, it distances Jesus from the experience of the others who were being baptised.

God’s words regarding Jesus (to Jesus in Mark) are also from John’s perspective, they are not communicating a relationship to Jesus but stating one that already exists in the Gospel. It is not a self-defining moment for Jesus, it is a proof for whoever may be listening. God is unable to speak in original words but has to quote the OT (this is true of Mk. also). The original words must have caused some difficulty — You are my son, this day I have become your father (Ps.2.7) and have been merged (conflated) with my chosen one, in whom I take delight (Is.42.1). The idea of ‘choosing’ has disappeared in both Gospels, and we should remember that neither reference is looking forward to Jesus but to the OT king of Israel and Cyrus respectively. Presumably, this did not fit their theologies, even though Jesus is precisely the man that God chose, rather than someone ‘supernaturally’ created by God. Matthew’s ‘Emmanuel’ also needs no assurance that he is on the right path.

It is always a risky thing to encounter the Spirit of God — Jesus was then led by the Spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil. Jesus’ experience is equivalent to that of the children of Israel who wander around in the wilderness and are tempted to abandon God. Somehow, this incident presents Jesus as someone for whom temptation was not normal, it did not come naturally it had to be manufactured, it was external and did not come from within. Alternatively, we can see it as the struggle between the Spirit of God and Jesus’ own internal motivation, between his divine mission and his human nature. The effect of receiving the Spirit was to sharpen the perception of internal conflict, to unbearable proportions (remember Elijah in the wilderness). He then spends some time (not necessarily 40 days, the OT parallels are probably well-known) trying to ‘subdue the flesh’, at the end of which his struggle reaches a climax. R.W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar suggest that — the temptation story is … a retelling of [the] ancient [wilderness] story but substituting Jesus for Moses … In Jewish lore, this kind of retelling, or reimagining, is called haggadah.

The Temptation: Matt. adds the mythological encounters which are not described in Mk. The tempter approached him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread’. The focus — food — is quite mundane, but this is no ordinary temptation, not one for mere mortals. So, whatever human struggle Jesus was going through the temptation itself deconstructs it. Jesus is not facing the sort of temptation that faces us, he is not our equal. We can almost begin to wonder if he is capable of being tempted at all, but that is not the purpose of the story. The focus is actually not on food, in fact the whole story of the temptation has a questionable ending (it deconstructs itself again) when the angels came and attended to his needs (presumably by miraculously providing food for him). Mk. makes the whole incident mythical, the devil and angels, with no mention of the human physical reality of fasting.

One interpretative option is to take the temptation as regarding the misuse of power. The ‘Person’ of Jesus, ‘the Christ’, is assumed to be powerful, but the whole Gospel deconstructs this. Another option is to lay the stress on If you are the Son of God, this perspective becomes even more potent if we see ‘the devil’ as a mythical representation of Jesus’ own thoughts. James’ words are (shockingly) apposite — Temptation comes when anyone (!) is lured and dragged away by ‘his’ own desires (1.14), the desire in this case not being for food, but for proof. This is support for the complete and unambiguous humanity of the man Jesus of Nazareth, any proper doctrine of the Incarnation must be consistent with this. But what would the outcome have been of Jesus giving in to his doubts in this way, not stones becoming bread, but the Son of God (a precarious existence) becoming mere man. We come back to power in the end, power in itself proves nothing and achieves nothing (if it is not in tune with the will, and Word, of God).

Did Jesus have the power to succumb to this temptation, could he turn stones into bread (remember the stones would have resembled small loaves of bread)? In John’s Gospel we read of him transmuting water into wine and in all the Gospels he seems to be able to replicate existing material (feeding multitudes with small amounts of bread and fish). Miracles like this are the province of God alone, Jesus is being asked to presume upon God’s power and his relationship with God. The devil’s question is not ‘are you really the Son of God?’ but ‘what kind of Son of God are you?’ God’s acknowledgement of Jesus as ‘Son’ is enough to prompt all the doubts that are described here — what does it mean to be the Son of God? How can I be the Son of God and yet be an ordinary Galilean?

Jesus answers this question when he responds to the ‘tempter’ — Scripture says, ‘Man is not to live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (a quotation from Deut.8.3, where Moses is explaining the significance of a similar situation to the children of Israel). Jesus went into the wilderness to learn and understand the Word of God (God’s will). The devil is not interested in scripture, quoting scripture against him is to remind oneself, to strengthen one’s own defences. Matthew is especially keen on scripture, although Luke’s account contains the same references. Jesus is also stating his own dependence on God’s word, and not anything intrinsic to himself, just like any other ‘man’.

The devil then took him to the Holy City and set him on the parapet of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down; for scripture says, “He will put his angels in charge of you, and they will support you in their arms, for fear you should strike your foot against a stone”’ (Ps.91.1–12). Whereas the previous temptation was rooted in physical reality here we are dealing with a fantastic vision. Jesus is asked to presume upon his relationship with God and be reckless in his trust of God, while at the same time revealing his doubt as he searches for proof. One of the lessons that we (the readers) should have learned by now, after reading the scriptures (the OT) is that there is no proof of the Word of God, there is only faith. It is a truism that the devil takes the scripture out of context (just like the author of this Gospel!), it is originally directed at anyone who has faith in God (we are all sons and daughters of God). It is also a figurative statement and therefore always true (to the one who has faith), even when facing crucifixion or other personal disaster. In the physical world it is completely unbelievable. The devil’s words (though originally Scripture’s, and hence God’s?) offer not encouragement but more doubt.

Jesus has to reject the apparently literal understanding of the Psalm — Scripture also says, ‘You are not to put the Lord your God to the test.’ Jesus is a legitimate target but God is not, putting God to the test is only for those who are out of tune with God. We can also see Jesus, or Matthew, telling his eventual audience to make sure that they have the right idea about the Son of God (Messiah), he will not display his power overtly, nor will he attempt to ‘prove’ himself. Finally, in the Gospels God is put to the test by those who do not accept Jesus’ message.

The devil took him next to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their glory. ‘All these’, he said, ‘I will give you, if you will only fall down and do me homage.’ There has been speculation about which mountain the devil took Jesus to, which is only significant if we take this literally. There has also been discussion regarding whether the devil actually had the authority (‘the prince of this world’ in John’s Gospel) to give these kingdoms to anyone. The Messiah was believed to be a political ruler (the devil was obviously tuned in to this popular idea, or it was an idea that caused Jesus himself some problems). Jesus is faced with the idea of making his mark on the political stage, having previously rejected selfish miracle-working that would call attention to him and reckless trust in God that would underline his Messianic claims. Jesus turns away from both popular understanding and his own (human) agonising about how he will put his message across — ‘Out of my sight, Satan! Scripture says, “You shall do homage to the Lord your God and worship him alone”’ (Deut.6.13). This does not indicate that the devil has any reality, though there may be a temptation to worship what is not God there is actually nothing else that can be worshipped.

Next, as indicated above, the story deconstructs itself. Why shouldn’t Jesus make bread for himself if angels were going to do the same thing later? This is the key which indicates that we should not take this story literally. Read my version of the Temptation here — ‘The Devil’s in the Desert’.

Matthew again uses the OT to move Jesus on, back to Galilee, claiming Isaiah (9:1–2) as proof. Matthew may have needed to explain why Jesus moved from Nazareth (which was not on the shore of Lake Galilee), maybe he also needs to flag up the significance of his ministry. Jesus’ message (not described as the Gospel, and therefore building on Mk.) is shorter than in Mark. It does not contain — ‘the right time’, ‘sins’ (not explicitly) or ‘believe’. Is it less open, more direct. Matthew rounds off the chapter with a shorthand version of Jesus’ early ministry, unlike Mk. who recounts a typical day of Jesus. The components of Matthew’s summary are:

  • travelling throughout Galilee;
  • teaching;
  • proclaiming the good news of the kingdom (it is only right at the beginning that Jesus proclaims the ‘good news’ in Mark);
  • healing, including exorcism;
  • Jesus’ fame, including outside Jewish territories;
  • being followed by large crowds.