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

The contrast of celestial signs in Matthew 24:29-31

It is often times concluded from reading Matthew 24:29-31 (and its parallels in Mark and Luke) that the coming of the Son of Man (whatever that might mean) must be immediately following the sun and moon darkening (whatever that also might mean). The adverb tote (translated at “then”) might be seen as indicating as something that soon follows. And this might be a justified interpretation if there is no other relation (like a cause-effect or chronological relationship) between 29 and 30. However, I would suggest there is another relationship between the sun and moon darkening with the coming of the Son of Man (along with angels being sent) that isn’t a chronological.

If we note closely and know a bit about apocalyptic language, one notices that there is a seeming contrast of celestial signs between 29 and 30-31. Verse 29 speaks about the moon not giving light and the sun being darker. This is language used to refer to a solar and lunar eclipse, but it also had a further meaning of being signs of a shift in powers. And if Jesus’ apocalypse refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD, then we indeed have a lunar eclipse and solar eclipse that take place soon after on March 1st and 20th 71 AD, respectively. So the significance of that imagery is two fold, a literal celestial sign for the changing reality

Verses 30-31 then take upon the same pattern, but in a compound form. It goes as follows (and I will explain afterwards):

sign of the Son of Man (sign) -> Son of Man coming upon clouds (reality and sign) -> sending of angels (reality) -> the great trumpet (sign) -> gathering together of the elect from the four winds (reality and sign) -> [implicitly] vindication (reality)

Let me explain this a bit further, first regarding the Son of Man coming upon the clouds. I have already talked about this allusion to the imagery of Daniel 7:13 here. I argued that the allusion to Daniel 7:13, which is regarding ascent, doesn’t mean the imagery can not be used to refer to a descent. I say it is, but the notion of coming upon the clouds signifies the authority the Son of Man has. So on one hand, we have an action happening, but then the clouds also signifies something further.

Now that sign signifies the authority Jesus has, and the reality it points to is the exercise of that authority in the sending of the angels. But then that sending of the angels leads to another sign. The sign is that of the trumpets, which is a sign for the bringing together of people. That sign/reality combination is rooted in Isaiah 27:12-13.

But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus continues to use heavenly imagery, that of the the angels collecting “from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.” It speaks of the universal effect the gathering will have, which leads to another reality that is signified (implicitly as in verse 29), vindication of the elect, which implies judgment also.

In other words, the language is vested with apocalyptic meaning, in which what is important is the literal meaning but what is symbolized by it. On the other hand, the langauge can also be literal, in which signs from of the heavens (the sky) speak about the change happening on the earth. We can base this on relying on verse 29 to be a literal sign that symbolizes something more.

Furthermore, the basis of all that happens is the authority of the Son of Man. His authority leads to what results in the judgment of all nations.  And as the imagery of clouds is associated with in Daniel 7:13-14, that authority is that of a new kingdom.

So implicitly then, there is a contrast between 29 and 30-31. The old kingdom of Israel’s destruction is signified by the solar and lunar eclipse (and the powers of the heavens are shaken also). This then makes the sitaution ripe for the new kingdom to come by the Son of Man. In other words, there is a vacuum of power in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple that would make it feasible for the King to come to inaugurate (in full) the new kingdom. In other words, there is a logical necessity for the destruction of the old regime of Israel for the new kingdom of Israel to be inaugurated on earth. And the contrast between celestials powers suggest that in my opinion.

The literary relationship between the two isn’t based upon the adverb “then” meaning a chronological relationship. Rather, the literary relationship is that of celestial imagery, and that imagery speaks of opposing forces. This opens up the interpretation of Jesus is referring to a necessity for the coming of the Son of Man, not necessarily a prophetic prediction of when (although Matthew may interpret Jesus, or at least the disciples question, as referring to the sign of his coming as king and of the end of the age, but that can be addressed in a later post). Once the powers of the old kingdom, symbolized by the Temple, are destroyed, then the Son of Man can come, but is not necessary that he come then. This allows for Jesus to seem to have confidence in the destruction of the Temple coming relatively soon and yet not knowing necessarily when He would come.

Also, one other possible relationship between 30-31 and the other apocalyptic material. The final implicit reality that occurs is the judgment of the world. This may be related to the fact that Jesus speaks of false Messiahs decieving the people, even possibly the elect, along with the abomination that would occur. This speaks of particulary Jewish sins (not many Gentiles would be a Messiah, or take part in a Messianic movement) along with Roman sins (with Rome essentially symbolizing all the Gentile world). Judgment was coming upon them for their evil doings, implied by the vindication of the elect.

October 1, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment

Matthew’s “the end of the age”

A phrase that is pivotal to understanding Jesus’ apocalypse, especially Matthew’s version of it (Matthew 24), is to understand the meaning of the phrase “the end of the age” which the disciples inquired about in conjunction with Jesus’ coming according to Matthew (Matthew 24:3).

The phrase is used 5 times in the New Testament, and all five times are use in the Gospel of Matthew. It is used three times in the parables (Matthew 13:39-40, 49), once in Matthew 24:3, and once in the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:20).

Interesting enough, in the disciples question that lead to Jesus’ apocalypse, only Matthew has them asking about “signs… of the end of the age.” The other two synoptics have them asking about “the sign when all these things are about to take place,” referring to Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction. In addition, the two parables in which the phrase “the end of the age” occurs, the parable of the wheat and tares and the parable of the net, do not occur in Mark and Luke.

Now when we look it’s usage in the parables, it seems to be associated with a judgment, or more specifically a separating of the righteous and the wicked. Furthermore, the angels are spoken of as instruments of this judgment by removing the wicked from the presence of the righteous. The combination of judgment and angelic judgments also occurs in Matthew 25:31-46, also not in Mark and Luke.

This reflects one of Matthew’s theological purposes, to speak of a coming judgment separating the righteous from the wicked. So when we come to Jesus’ apocalypse, which speaks of Jesus’ coming on the clouds (echoes of Daniel 7:13-14 and the Son of Man’s authority) and of the angels gathering (although in this instance, the elect), it should be of no coincidence that Matthew would have the disciples asking about “the end of the age” (which was asked about alongside Jesus’ coming, as king).

Furthermore, “the end of the age” seems to be Danielic also. Although the Greek words are different between Daniel 12:13 and Matthew, the both have the same meaning. Also, in explanation of the parable of the wheat and tares, Jesus speaks of the righteous shining like the sun after the judgment that comes upon the wicked, which is an allusion to Daniel 12:3 (replace sun with stars).

This leads to conclusion that Jesus’ reference to the his coming on the clouds doesn’t refer to some vindication or distant ideal of authority from afar in heaven, but rather that he comes with angels and gathers everyone together to separate the righteous and the wicked and bring judgment upon the wicked, at least according to Matthew. Either that, or we have to regard to similarity in language as as coincidental.

The options we have before us then are:

1) Matthew misinterprets Jesus

2) Jesus was mistaken in reference to His coming

3) Jesus’ apocalypse does not refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD

4) There is a gap between the destruction of Jerusalem (signified by a solar and lunar eclipse that follows) and the coming of Jesus to reign as king and judge

NT Wright’s interpretation cannot fit within the evidence at hand without rejecting the first premise (at least not without further taking more language without any reference to a literal meaning). Skepticism and critical readings enslaved to one form of interpretation accepts the second. Popularized eschatologies accepts the third option. I, however, have been arguing for the fourth option as I presented here. There remains difficulties with it, but I will attempt to address them in the near future.

September 29, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 2 Comments