A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

Matthew 19:16-17 and the Gospels’ sources

In Matthew 19:16-17, we have a very interesting passage, that starts out the narrative of the rich young ruler. What makes this passage interesting is that it is different from the other two parallels in the other two synoptics, Mark and Luke.

Matthew 19:16 portrays the ruler asking Jesus asking about what “good thing” he should do. Mark 10:17 and and Luke 18:18 call Jesus “Good teacher.” And we move forward to Jesus’ response, in Matthew’s account, it has him asking the ruler why he is asking him about what is good to do. Whereas Mark and Luke have Jesus asking why the ruler attributing Jesus with the description of being good. And in all three accounts, Jesus says “None is good but God.” (although Matthew refers to “the One” rather than “God”).

More skeptical scholars would perhaps explain this due to later influence trying to preserve Jesus divine status in Matthew. However, there is a much better explanation that accords with information we do have already.  The divergence in the accounts can be attributed to a certain type of Hebraism associated with the use of the genitive.

First off, if the story is genuine, the conversation had between Jesus and the rich young ruler would have in all likelihood happened in Hebrew/Aramaic, not Greek. So somewhere between the story and the gospels as we have them, there would have to have been a translation from Hebrew/Aramaic to Greek. And if there was a translation from it, it is not at all unfeasible that there could have been a couple different translations of the original version to Greek.

Supposing in the original language (or at least recording(s)), the rich young ruler use the genitive noun for good to describe teacher. A basic translation of it would turn out to be “Teacher of good.” One way of interpreting it is to say that the rich young ruler was referring to Jesus as a Teacher who taught about good things. We would call this the objective genitive, where the genitive noun is kind of a direct object of the head noun, when the head noun has an implied action behind it. And the word “teacher” implies the act of teaching. Using this, the rich young ruler could have been interpreted as referring to Jesus as “One who teachers about what is good.”

However, there is another possible way it could be translated, with the Hebrew genitive. The Hebrew genitive used the genitive to attribute a certain characteristic to the head noun. So, in other words, “teacher of good” could be interpreted as “good teacher” or “teacher that is good.”

Matthew and Mark/Luke both take upon these type of interpretations of the rich young ruler, respectively. Matthew’s ruler sees Jesus as the teacher of good things, wheras Mark’s and Luke’s ruler sees Jesus as the teacher who is a good (or righteous) person. So, we have a fairly simple explanation that doesn’t require skepticism and/or certain unproven historical assumptions to make sense of the diverging accounts.

But there is one difficult with the genitive theory. Why didn’t Matthew’s description have the ruler calling Jesus something along the lines of “a teacher about good things” instead of shifting the adjective to the actions to be perscribed? This we can not answer with any certainty. Perhaps he was trying to offer an account that was different form the interpretation that Mark and Luke used and wanted to show a definitively different interpretation. Or maybe he felt that it would make more sense to his readers, if the question is about the good things one is to do, to dynamically render it as he did. This we can not know for certain, but there are plausible explanations, so we need not have to make this difficulty as reason for rejection.

If all that I have said so far is true, it can lead us to make some educated speculations about the sources behind the synoptics (at least for this narrative in question).

1) It requires there to be a translation into the Greek, from a Hebrew or Aramaic source. This would fit with what Papais wrote: “Matthew put together the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” (Papias Fragment VI).

2) We must likely conclude the source for Matthew, Mark, and Luke was indeed one source at a certain time, since the basic structure of the narrative in all accounts are the same, and the language is similar or can be argued to be from the same basic language.

3) Since the form and basic narrative is the same, the source can not be from the hypothetical Q source, but it must come from a source that has Jesus’ sayings supplied along with the narrative.

4) There had to be two different basic translations, one for Matthew, and one for Mark and Luke.

5) Matthew’s account reflects a translation from a text. The different words and phrases do not reflect an oral tradition which would tend towards a more condensed account.

6) Matthew’s account reflects a Hebrew influence, indicating likely Matthew translated or used a source that translated form an original Aramaic account. For instance the Greek for “complete” (“If you wish to be complete”) is teleiois, which is used throughout the LXX (see Genesis 6:9, Exodus 12:5, Deuteronomy 18:13).

7) Mark and Luke’s account reflects an oral tradition. The language is more condensed. There are also minor divergences in the language of the two accounts.

8 ) Mark and Luke’s account has “One thing you lack…” instead of “If you wish to be complete…” indicating less of a Hebrew influence upon the oral tradition. Perhaps, the oral tradition that had less off a Hebrew influence didn’t see the Hebrew significance of teleiois, and thus translated it in terms of lack.

9) Tradition also associates Mark and Luke with Peter and Paul respectively, both of whom either tradition and/or sources indicated were involved with areas outside of Israel (for instance, Peter founding the church in Rome). Also, Mark is also associated with Barnabas, another apostle to the Gentiles. Thus, Mark and Luke could have gotten their source from Gentile oral tradition (or at least an oral tradition that was then written down afterwards).

So, here we have a theory of sources that makes sense of tradition, makes logical sense, is fairly simple, explains the divergences and similarities, and isn’t entirely based upon a single unfounded historical assumption to explain the divergence. Doesn’t make it right for sure, but it is enough for me to cast doubt on a Q source or assume there was an disingenuous rendition and/or manipulative motive behind the gospel accounts.


October 4, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mark 13:24-32

As I noted in my previous post, one of the places where I feel Wright falls short in his tendency to argue for more metaphorical (although a different type of metaphorical) and apocalyptic understanding of Mark 13 that takes 24-26 not as literal events. Let me start off by saying that I don’t think language always has to be taken with wooden literalism, that doesn’t allow words and phrases to be invested with meaning other than the dictionary definition, and that the invested meaning might even totally over shadow the literal meaning.

This passage (and it’s parallels in Matthew and Luke) has been the subject of varying interpretation, perhaps more than most any other passages in the Bible. But they can be summed up in five different options:

A) The events foretold are literal (at least in part), and they have yet to be fulfilled (more conservative branches)

B) The events foretold are literal (at least in part), but Jesus was mistaken (more critical response)

C) The things Jesus refers to is fulfilled spiritually (full preterism)

D) The language is more metaphorical (Wright)

E) The “little apocalypse” was the invention of the early church (now I am not going to address this because that goes beyond the scope of this post, but only mention it for completeness sake)

As I said, I reject Wright’s view for a couple reasons. He correctly notes that the potential use for apocalyptic language to be used in a way that isn’t based upon the basic definitions on the words, but rather is based upon the imagery and associations the words bring. But to interpret 24-26 in light of that raises an issue: what is the signal to the hearers/reader that this is not more literal?

Because throughout the earlier part of the “little apocalypse,” Jesus has been using which is almost universally considered descriptions of more literal events (whether in foresight or hindsight). The foretelling of other so-called Christs/Messiahs literally happened in Israel. Is it proper to see Jesus suddenly shift to a different form of communicating without any “marker” to indicate such? The meaning Wright would give to 24-26 would need to be so ingrained into the public (or at least the disciple’s) consciousness for such a “marker” to be unnecessary. Otherwise, Jesus would be rather confusing (or the gospel writers amiss at accurately communicating Jesus’ message).

Secondly, when we go to Luke’s version, he involves the language of the signs of the heavens more into Jesus’ sermon (10-11). If Luke is written more of a story of how Jesus’ group was not revolutionary force that served as a threat to Rome, then wouldn’t it behoove Luke, who seemed to have a very good grasp of the Torah and Prophets, to clarify that the language refers more to Jerusalem’s destruction (assuming Luke was written after 70 AD)?

Now this is not to say the apocalyptic doesn’t have anything to do with the changing of the powers on earth. But it is may be a false dichotomy to presume either a literal meaning or a more metaphorical meaning. I would propose it was a literal sign to signify the change of things. For instance there was indeed a solar eclipse (albeit a hybrid) that could have been seen in Israel in 71 AD, after the destruction of Jerusalem (“Immediately after the tribulation of those days…”). After all, there was a reason the language of the different celestial events began to be associated with the changing of the earthly powers.

And that moves us forward to the “second coming” verse of 26. It is important to remember, as Wright notes, that this would not be seen as a “second coming” by the disciples, but rather the sign of Jesus’ coming to be king of Israel, which they assumed he was going to take within his lifetime (the typical human vision of lifetime). No doubt, such language is literal, would have caused confusion to the disciples, because Jesus was on the earth right there. But despite the incapability of the disciples to understand how what Jesus said was going to happen, it did not stop him from speaking of such literal events, like for instance the foretelling of his death and resurrection.

Then you have Acts 1:9-11 speaks of Jesus descending just as he ascended up with a cloud. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 speaks of descent with a trumpet (see Matthew 24:30-31). Unless these instances are also filled with more metaphorical use of the language (I doubt a strong case can be made for that), either there was a misunderstanding between the transmission from Jesus to Paul and Luke or there is envisioned a literal event.

Also, some were waiting for the king of Israel, the ruler of God’s kingdom (see Zechariah 6:13). Wright’s appeal to vindication avoids the issue. A mere vindication of Jesus wasn’t the expectation, but the actual presence of the king, a king who could serve as judge. Because Jesus’ quotes from Daniel 7:13, and the following verse refers to the authority that the “son of man” who came in the clouds would wield. Furthermore, the expectation of a king to rule on the throne of David (Isaiah 9:6-7) would presume the notion of a physically present king, not merely a vindicated but, by implication, an absent one.

But if the “little apocalypse” refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, did Jesus fail to return as he foretold? I think the mistake is assuming that the purpose of the apocalyptic sermon was to talk about the end of all things, which was naturally associated with Jesus’ second coming. But the question attributed to disciples by all three accounts was about when the destruction of the Temple would occur and the signs that would accompany it, although Matthew “interprets” the second question as referring to Jesus’ coming (as king).

If indeed the primary purpose was to refer to the destruction of the Temple, as he had just foretold, then the mention of his coming in the clouds could be seen as a further insight to what will happen beyond the destruction of the Temple. This might probable, as destruction of the temple would speak against the Herods and would set up the stage for the building of a new temple, which would obviously leave Israelites asking the question of the next building of the Temple and the new king. So destruction of the Temple is associated with the rebuilding of the Temple by the true king, the anointed one of God. Hence Jesus would make mention of his return (although again, perhaps baffling to the disciples at that moment), to be associated with a rebuilding of the temple that the King would do. This might also explain the difference between Matthew 24:3 and Mark 13:4 with Luke 21:7.

So what does this mean? That Jesus may not have had the purpose of saying that his coming would be immediately following the destruction that would come from 70 AD. This would allow for sort of a chronological gap between 24-25 from 26-27. And as I would argue, the parable of the fig tree would fit into that notion.

The purpose of the parable was to say that after these signs came that Jesus was near, he would soon take his place as King. Off hand, it is natural to see “near” as referring to near within the span of a few years. However, if Wright is correct in his notion about Israel feeling about being in exile, then near could be referring relative to the history of Israel as a whole, and not so much near in time for the current generation. Hence, Jesus would feel it appropriate to say “all these things,” referring to the signs in my opinion, would happen in the current generation, because the history of Israel was coming to a climax and coming close to God’s purposed goal in this generation. The nearness would be relative to Israel’s history (especially if we span back farther than Abraham, even as far back to Adam). It could even mean that there are not significant changes, or new ages, to come before the king arrives.

That Jesus is not trying to assign a particular specific time relative to the other events is made clear by 32. Unless we take the words with wooden literalism, Jesus is likely trying to say that time frame in which his return was to happen was unknown to him. He only knows that once the signs take place, at least as far as Israel is concerned, the stage is set for Jesus to appear at any time. The temple is destroyed and the political forces of power that opposed Jesus are deposed, which means the True King can come to build the true temple at anytime and bring in God’s Kingdom as it is truly meant to be.

This allows for the obvious interpretation of the signs referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD (instead of the modern eschatology, represented and unintentionally caricatured by the Left Behind series), while not having to appeal to an out of place call to more metaphorical langauge and without having to relegate to a “spiritual fulfillment” of the coming of Jesus by full preterism. Nor does it need to say that Jesus was incorrect in saying that he would come (again).

August 27, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 2 Comments