Outlining Matthew in its Conceptual Matrix of Intergenerational Governance
What is this?
This essay is here to prepare me to scale the Mount of Olives. By that, I mean that I’m getting ready to do a close reading of the Mount Olivet discourse and its introductory chapter, which can be found in Matthew 23–25.
This outline is part of a larger series that includes word studies on the crucial language of time, including the Greek and Hebrew-Aramaic background. The project also includes my personal journal from when I was first preparing for the journey. It culminates in these detailed analyses of Matthew 23, the crucial framing language of Matthew 24: 1–3, and then examinations of the three major units of Matthew 24–25: A: 24:1–44, B: 24:45–25:30, and A’: 25:31–46 (plus 28:20).
(0) Reflections on Our Method and Interpretive Framework
Here, I’ll outline Matthew’s Gospel as a whole, to help prepare us for that more detailed exploration of Matthew 23–25. Too often, Matthew 23–25 is treated like an island, isolated from the broader context of Matthew, and I think this causes us to misunderstand the text because we miss how it fits in its own immediate cotext. If we want to read Matthew well, I think it is essential to always remember the narrative whole that holds all of the smaller elements of the book as it has been composed.
What I will argue here is that Matthew is the narrative account of an enemy-loving Messiah who overcomes Rome without violence, and he accomplishes this by turning Rome’s own violence against it through the cross and his resurrection. This essay will help us see how well this Gospel reads if we understand it as an account of Jesus establishing a non-violent, intergenerational government through his teaching, life, death and resurrection. At the core of this reading is a careful study of the language related to time in Matthew, especially the contentious word that is usually translated as “eternal”: “aionios”.
This essay can be a good central place to start your own exploration of this project. At the same time, you might also want to go back to my word study on Greek terms for eternity here, and the Hebrew background language here. If you’re especially curious, or enjoy denser and shorter-form writing, you might also enjoy the journal I kept while preparing for this work here. Or maybe you’re like me and you like to skip toward the end of things. In that case, you might even want to jump right to the next piece in the series here, which is a detailed exegesis of Matthew 23. I love to cultivate human agency, because I believe we’re all image-bearers of God. The formal flexibility of the project reflects on of my core methodological commitments, which involves refusing to foreclose possibilities any faster than we need to. While I can argue that this is ethically important independent of explicitly religious priors, it is best if I just admit that my own commitment to this is theologically and Biblically rooted: I suspect that understanding ourselves and exercising our agency well is pretty close to being the meaning of life. So dear image-bearer of God, please feel free to explore this project in whatever way seems most inviting to you.
Out of this commitment to respecting the agency that is so important to the wholeness of each human soul, there grow two modes of reading that are distinct and complementary. On one hand, I’ll reconstruct a reading of Matthew that is also a plausible reading of the book as a whole in its ancient historical context. The word I’ll use repeatedly to gloss this effort to read the text and historical context together is “consilience”: my hope is that we might manage, with enough effort, to read the text consiliently. On the other hand, I’ll read apocalyptically, which means that I will read Matthew as a revelatory text for us today. In this way, I also try to read the text in a consilient way in and through my own context. Underlying both quests for consilience is the conviction that this is simply what it means to read something, and that reflexive self-awareness about this endeavor is an important part of a good and deep reading.
By reading Matthew apocalyptically today, I certainly don’t mean that I think Matthew tells us that we are living in the final generation of history. Rather, I think Matthew speaks to each generation as we make our own journey from birth, through life, and into death, and is especially relevant to even bigger themes like the lives and deaths of nations. However, this form of apocalyptic reading needs to strenuously avoid the widespread narcissism that afflicts a lot of Christian reading. Too often, Christians in my context egotistically imagine that we are the final generation and that our death will be the death of everything. While not impossible, I’m suspicious of the egocentrism that beckons us here. Instead, I think that our lives and deaths are our lives and deaths, and we rightly care especially deeply about them precisely because they are ours. This is understandable and even good, in its own way, when it is appreciated in this appropriately limited way. Matthew speaks profoundly to matters of life and death at all kinds of scales, from personal to national to international, and it has done this through the generations, including in our own. When we understand how the text remains revelatory to us in our own generation, too, then we are reading it apocalyptically.
Let’s discuss consilient literary reading in historical in just a little more depth. This approach aims to read the text in a way that a competent reader could have read it, in its original social and political and spiritual context. We need to consider both competent and incompetent readings here, because the text of Matthew indicates to us that both types of reading were present. For example, when the Book of Daniel is cited at a crucial point, the text instructs us to, “let the reader understand.” This instruction wouldn’t be necessary unless readers easily misunderstood. The Book of Daniel is especially important to the book of Matthew, and is especially important to Matthew 23–25, and so misunderstandings of Daniel could easily become misunderstandings of Matthew. For all of these confusions, I think the texts are often clear enough, at least in a basic sense. Daniel, for example, does a lot to teach its readers how to read the book, and its image-heavy genre, as something like an ancient political cartoon. The Book of Daniel is perfectly explicit about this at many points. So I think the difficulty in perceiving the message of Matthew and Daniel isn’t primarily cognitive, but is largely a matter of the heart. The way of enemy love that Matthew’s Jesus commends is just so deeply counter-intuitive that countless interpreters, even devout ones, have fought hard to win their own incompetent re-readings. This historically-grounded exegetical task is the baseline of the conversation here, and it is through this work that I’ll also step into contemporary discussions at times.
Let’s consider the promise and limitations of our central criterion of consilience in reading. Especially for a text like this, a good historical reading must be a highly consilient reading, because the text is transparently composed well as a literary whole. A consilient reading is one that can elegantly account for that whole, pulling together its meanings simply and beautifully in a coherent way. Or more simply, a consilient reading should give us “aha!” moments when we grasp it. With this sort of literature, looking for consilience means that I am looking for the subtle interactions between the text, its cotexts and the original historical context, and that we are especially aware of the many layers of reference that give great Second Temple literature its richness. This is especially important with texts like Matthew, because part of what we need to explain, historically, is why the text was seen to teach wisdom. It was seen to be doing just that in its original context, which is why people invested so much effort and money in producing it, reproducing it, and ultimately viewing it as scripture in the first place. In part, Matthew was elevated as literature that taught wisdom because it had a profound degree of consilience and coherence, and so historical reconstruction requires us to understand the text in this way, in light of meanings and modes of reading and associations that would have been available to its original author(s) and audiences. So the task of historical reconstruction requires us to explain the text in two senses: first, we must be able to show how the text could have made profound sense to its original author and audience, and second, we must do this if we’re going to explain, historically, why the text exists as scripture at all.
While the approach I’m using is pretty uncontroversial, a couple of caveats are important. Of course ancient historical reconstruction is always speculative. I’m aware that a variety of consilient but distinct readings are possible, and sometimes these readings are incompatible. So consilience on its own doesn’t guarantee that anyone has “the right” reading. Humility and gentleness are the order of the day among informed readers of Matthew. Additionally, it’s always possible that the texts contain subtle depths that the original author missed, at least consciously. Consilience can reflect a conscious intention, but it doesn’t have to. Those who have written things know how frequently a text will have a coherence and depth of meaning that goes beyond the author’s original intention. This happens regularly because writing combines both conscious and non-conscious processing, as does reading. Finally, it is always possible that I have accidentally introduced something that simply couldn’t have been available to the original language community behind the text in my quest for consilience, and that I have therefore imposed a type or degree of consilience on the text that is not historically plausible. When I do this, that is rightly considered a mistake according to my method itself; my hope is to avoid precisely this sort of problem, which is a common one. In my search for a profoundly consilient reading of Matthew, in its historical context, I’ll assume that these caveats are generally understood. I might state them again from time to time, but I won’t begin every single sentence with them, because this would quickly become tiresome and redundant. Instead, I’ll generally work to convey the beauty, excitement and comprehensive power of the approach I am bringing here. And from time to time we’ll return to our caveats, to help contextualize what it all amounts to, in terms of the broader scholarly debates around this book.
And now let’s turn back to apocalyptic reading, our second mode, in a bit more depth. At times I’ll move into an apocalyptic mode, and my perspective is broadly similar to that of Father Behr here. Part of the burden of this project is to illustrate how the text, in its original context, authorizes and even requires Behrian apocalyptic reading of us today. That is to say, properly understood, that I think the Bible is still very useful for reading us in a revelatory way. I aim to demonstrate that this is the case, how it is the case, and I’ll also weave some of it in here and there. This apocalyptic and contemporary mode of reading has a symbiotic relationship with the reconstructive efforts that form the heart of our work here. I think that Matthew’s Gospel is literarily excellent in its original context. This means that it is engaged in constant wordplay, parallelism and reference in order to amplify, illustrate and inculcate its way of seeing. We are used to this type of writing in our own context, where literary play can be taken for granted as the warp and weft of a well-woven tale. And yes, literary writing today also inculcates a way of seeing, even if crude politicking is avoided in favor of more subtle transformations of our perception. The apocalyptic mode of reading therefore complements the work of reconstruction, because reconstruction attempts to restore our capacity to experience densely literary ancient writing in a way that mirrors our own experiences of similarly revelatory literature today. By offering examples of dense and highly referential writing and reading, I hope to equip us with a familiar map of those distant hills and vales, to help increase the credibility of claims that highly esteemed ancient literature would have done this, too.
Still, Matthew’s Gospel is far more than a single word, even if “aion” is a seed from which the whole text can be seen to grow. Even individual words exist within broader matrices of reference and meaning, and they are defined as much by what they oppose, as by where they find their homes. So I’ll also unfold Matthew’s Gospel in terms of three conceptual matrixes that are constantly utilized in it: a matrix for TIME, a matrix for EXTENDED FAMILY and a matrix for GOVERNANCE that closely involves both EXTENDED FAMILY and TIME. We will explore TIME through the Greek terms aidios, aion, aionios and the Hebrew language of olam. We will explore EXTENDED FAMILY in terms of the language of generation(s), sonship, and nation (or ethne). Together, this language forms a complex that is centered on ideas of intergenerational persistence that are closely related to governance. After that, we look at the deep frame that can hold both of these other frames together, not as a container but as an organizing concept that draws them into a specific kind of coherence. This describes the mission of Jesus as GOVERNMENT, but a strange one, one that is fundamentally non-violent. We might also present this deep Lakovian frame this way: THE CREATIVE WORK OF JESUS IS NON-VIOLENT GOVERNMENT. If you are unfamiliar with George Lakoff’s framing theory, which I am using here, you can find a detailed explanation and application of it to the Trinity here. Our deep frame can also be expressed in a precise parallel like this: The Gospel of the Kingdom is that Jesus (the subject of this Gospel narrative) is Lord. In order to contextaulize what is being said about government in Second Temple terms, we will partially familiarize the categories of King (something like our executive branches), Temple (something like our judicial branches), Lawgiver (something like our legislative branches) and Prophecy (something like our media, or fourth estate.) This will help us notice the systematic and coherent governmental program that unfolds in Matthew.
I’ll then highlight the deployment of these conceptual matrices across Matthew, in outline. By the end, you will be able to see how Matthew, contextualized, is relatively clearly talking about the establishment of an intergenerationally persistent, universal, non-violent government. It does this by deploying the aionic/olamic intergenerational conceptual matrix of generation-son-ethne, along with a comprehensive transformation of the language of government in the Kingdom of Judah: King, Temple, Lawgiving and Prophecy. The terms aion and aionios, like the background language around olam, fit perfectly and precisely within this conceptual matrix, empowering Matthew to articulate this vision.
You can save yourself some time by just accepting what I have said in the abstract above. But maybe you’re more stubborn than that. If so, wonderful. While we all depend on trust to make sense of our complex world, I’m eager for help from those who can challenge or validate my model and my observations here. I’m here for you whether you’re inclined to trust, or verify, or thoughtfully falsify my claims. Oddly, I’m much less interested in uninformed attacks, which do happen from time to time in this area because so many of us have so much of our identity invested in some reading of the text. Still, I don’t care for being the target of the misinformed rage and bile that sometimes arises because of that. I do have my eccentricities. So however you’re inclined to engage or disengage I want you to know that I have so many diamonds to give away. I hope you stay for them.
Three Matrixes of Meaning
TIME: Aidios, Aion, Aionios and Olamic phrases
My investigations here started with an effort to understand Matthew’s language of time. Let’s glance at the pinnacle of our climb, the conclusion of Matthew 25. It’s often best to start with the end in mind, especially when trying to understand teleological conceptions of time:
Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ “Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ “Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ “These will go away into eternal (aionion) punishment, but the righteous into eternal (aionion) life.”
At the core of this project is an attempt to read the word aionion well. As it turns out, to read a word well we need to read everything around it, too. In the previous essays, I’ve summarized some of the best current literature on this topic and discussed it in some depth. If you’re not familiar with the work of Heleen Keizer, Illaria Ramelli and David Konstan. (Apologies to David Konstan, I will regularly shorten Ramelli-Konstan to Ramelli alone, in part because she has also gone on to do additional work in this domain that I am also referencing.)
You might consider reading this essay on the crucial (and contested) language around “aion” and “aionios”, and then follow it with this one on the Hebrew and Aramaic background of “olam”. Here, I’ll generally assume that you’re familiar with these terms and their deep conceptual power in context, as understood by Heleen Keizer. Still, for those who like to rush in with me, the conclusion of that work is this: aion persistently means lifetime in Greek. Even in Plato’s Timaeus, where people sometimes argue that it means eternal, Plato’s discourse is vastly more incisive if we understand him to be talking about the lifetime of the cosmos rather than using anything like our concept of eternity. In turn, “aionios” is a mediating philosophical term apparently invented by Plato, and it makes great sense in the context for which Plato invented it. In the Timaeus it means “lifetimeic” and is useful because it can describe both the lifetime of the entire (living) cosmos, and all of the little lifetimes (like ours) that copy it. Meanwhile, the Hebrew and Aramaic cultural background of Matthew’s Gospel (and the Septuagint) resonates deeply with this Greek usage, but is distinct in important ways. Hebrew uses phrases with the word “olam” to indicate an indefinite period of time that essentially goes as far as one can perceive. Olamic language is especially used to describe intergenerational processes of transmission, things that go from olam to olam and generation to generation. This has a poetic beauty to it. When something carries on intergenerationally, it means that something is transmitted as far as one person can experience in their lifetime, and on to whatever the next generation can experience in their lifetime, and so on. This is all powerfully argued by Keizer and others, even though it is contentious, which is why the other essays exist to help you understand and internalize Keizer’s synthesis. Here, we will see what we can see if we take this up toward the Mount of Olives, surveying the whole landscape of Matthew’s Gospel to help us situate our central text. Maybe we will even be able to surmount the pinnacle in the end.
As with Matthew’s Gospel itself, the word “aidios” is fittingly absent from our discussion here. It refers to that which is properly beyond time, and therefore “eternal” in that particular sense. If you’d like to know about that, I recommend the essay on the Greek language of time, above. Or better, a lot of silent meditation.
EXTENDED FAMILY: Persistence in time through Genesis-Son-Ethnos
Genesis, Generation and Generations
The language of generation, genesis, begetting and birth all dances together in the Greek of Matthew’s Gospel. Γένεσις (Genesis) is the name given in the Septuagint to the first book of the Torah, and Matthew starts his own scroll with the words Βίβλος γενέσεως (Biblos geneseos). To literally draw it out, the book of Matthew starts like this: Book of Genesis (!) … of Jesus Christ Son of David, son of Abraham.
Is Matthew deliberately playing with the start of Torah in a way that compares to John’s gospel, which starts with “In the Beginning”? Yes, of course. Matthew starts with the title of Genesis given in Greek, and John starts with the first words (and title) given to that book in Hebrew: בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית. Bereshit, which is usually translated, “In the Beginning.” Arguably, a better name for the book of Matthew would be “Genesis of Jesus.” This direct appeal to the title of Genesis also helps explain why the Greek-speaking church generally placed it at the beginning of the New Testament. Already, we know quite a bit about the author or authors of Matthew’s Gospel. Their claims for their movement are enormous, and they know exactly what they’re doing, in a literary sense.
So we should, from the very start, be clued in that the talk of generations and “sonship” that fill Matthew’s Gospel are intended in multiple ways. This is a discourse filled with serious wordplay, with intentional multiple meanings, from word one. It is also regularly noted that Matthew can be naturally divided into sections of teaching, which is a rather clear echo of the Torah and especially of its name in Greek: the Pentateuch.  So we should note well that Matthew starts this small-but-mighty Jesus Pentateuch just as it should: Genesis of Jesus.
And then comes the genealogy. For those familiar with Torah, Matthew’s genealogy isn’t a boring list of names. It is, at least in part, a rapid-fire sampling of greatest hits, an intense medley that tells the story of the Torah from Abraham on. In its original context, its pleasures and pains would have resembled the pains and pleasures of The Evolution of Dance, with all of the intergenerational memories and delights and scandals it evokes. We see the dances of Michael Jackson and pride mingles with shame. In a way that isn’t entirely dissimilar, Matthew reminds us of Tamar and Judah, and the seed she had to steal from Judah to get the son (and inheritance) unjustly denied her. Survival isn’t always pretty. But our ancestors who survived are the ones who brought us here.
Each tiny reference in this Genesis filled with these geneses quotes so many stories and memories and moments, defining era after era after era. Except instead of just covering the period from 1950 to 2019, like the Evolution of Dance, our genealogy covers … what? What is the period covered by Matthew? Unlike Luke, this one doesn’t start (or end) with Adam. It starts with Abraham, and so it focuses our mind on various national projects, including that of Judah, where the Temple once stood. We might be reminded that the family of Abraham included not only Judah and Jacob, who became limping Israel, but also surrounding kingdoms like Edom, who grew from Jacob’s brother Esau. I’m pointing toward Esau in particular, because in the time of Jesus (the Second Temple period) the Romans had recruited the Herodian dynasty that then ruled Judah, drawing them from Edom, Esau’s seed. The Edomites had been forcibly converted to the faith of Judah under the Hasmoneans, and by the time of Jesus an Edomite usurper had been placed on the throne of David. [1.5], [1.6] Matthew recollected a past that was not past yet, when it was written. Because of the monumental historical impact of Jesus, this history remains present to us with a particular intensity and intimacy.
We should also notice that all of that “begetting” in the genealogy is also “genesising” in Greek: ἐγέννησεν. Each “genesis” produces a generation, birth, or γενεα. So right after the genesis with all its genesising (begetting) that makes the geneai (generations) Matthew finally tells us the Jesus is born in Matthew 1:18. What word does the author choose to name his birth? Genesis. The word used for his birth is literally the Greek title of the first book of Torah: γένεσις. And so we start the genealogy with Abraham, who begins the covenanting activity with Judah’s God, which establishes the basis of intergenerational governance. Then after 14 generations we get David, the continuing royal line at the center of continuing intergenerational governance. But after 14 generations David’s Kingdom is carried off to Babylon, and yet intergenerational governance continues even in exile, awaiting its proper restoration. And then Jesus, the Messianic Son of David and Son of Abraham and Son of Man and Son of God, gets genesised.
The genealogy therefore centers God’s promises to Abraham and David, the promises that Abraham’s family, or seed, would be a blessing to all of the families or nations of the world, and that the Davidic line would rule from generation to generation and even unto the generation of generations. In this expansive use of the language, I’m referring to the point of greatest temporal scope expressed in Christian canons: Daniel 7. You can find Keizer’s discussion of the text here. It uses a threefold repetition of olamic language in order to express a truly universal and transcendent scope of time, and it takes that much work with olam to really clearly say such things. So the intergenerational project of Abraham and David’s seed is the sort of genesis, or generation, that Matthew centers in the frame. But running under everything like a subterranean stream, we also have the whole cosmos in view in this “Book of Genesis.”
So the text is screaming at us that this is a book about genesis: generation and generations and especially the generation of the Messiah. Here I’ll note that this language of generation also remains important in Trinitarian theology, and it is extremely illuminating to realize that the biological metaphor of generation is always present in Trinitarian discussions, even as the Father-Son-Mother structure is publicly effaced for a variety of reasons. You can read a lot more on that here. For our purposes, it is enough to note that in later Trinitarian theology, the Father’s ‘generation’ of the Son is precisely the generation of begetting (genesising).
How will all of this relate to Matthew 24–25 when we get there? Genesis is playing a dual role that perfectly lines up with the relationship between aion (as the prototypical lifetime of the nation of Judah) and aionios (the copies of that lifetime), even as it also subtly gestures toward a truly cosmic and universal scope. The central drama of Matthew involves the way in which the generation to which Jesus speaks will see the Kingdom of Judah die just as it saw the King of Judah die, as it foolishly engages in an unwinnable war. However, Matthew’s central focus is less cosmological and more governmental than John’s Gospel, even as ancient governance and cosmology were (of course) very closely connected. (They remain closely connected today, by the way, even if we try to suppress this because of the scars left by our wars of attrition and tradition.) So the logic of Matthew stretches toward the truly universal and cosmological from the inside, by anchoring us in the intergenerational processes that mark out history as a whole. In other words, Matthew’s Gospel is telling us all about genesis in its socio-political-spiritual sense, and only gestures toward cosmology in an olamic way. By thinking about the movement from generation to generation, as we each see what we can see in our life and then pass the torch to the next generation, it gestures toward a fullness of time. But it isn’t that “olam” phrases, on their own, indicate the fulness of all time. Instead, they speak only to the fullness or the completion of some time, of some story reaching its end. Matthew’s gospel primarily concerns itself with the way in which Jesus and the nation of Judah reach their brutal end, and their new beginning, at the hands of the Romans in Matthew’s generation.
Sonship is closely connected to ideas of governance in multiple ways. As a nation, Israel is described as God’s son in the Torah. To call someone a Son of God in the Greco-World at the time of Jesus was to claim governing and even imperial authority for them. And the phrase “Son of Man” invokes Daniel 7, in which the Son of Man represents the human anti-Empire that will defeat and overtake the beastly Empires of Babylon, Greece, etc. To borrow from N.T. Wright and extend the concept, to say that Jesus is the Son of God is to say that Caesar is not the true Son of God, meaning Caesar is not the true, divinely legitimated emperor. To call Jesus the Son of Man is to say that he leads God’s legitimate answer to the beasts of Empire.
Sonship is also directly connected to generation and generations: parents generate a child when they ‘genesis’ (beget and birth) them. Other son phrases in Matthew include “Son of Abraham” and “Son of David”. Both appeal to covenants with God that were understood as essential elements of properly Davidic governance. The title “Son of David” especially emphasizes that Jesus is the legitimate king of Israel. In its historical context “Son of David” language loudly implied, “And Herod, the Son of Edom, is not the legitimate king of Judah and, by extension, Israel.”
So the language of Sonship especially draws to mind dynastic rule. A dynastic ruler has two huge responsibilities: they have to kill off rivals, and they have to generate an heir to continue the dynasty. Jesus completely and pointedly failed on both counts.
First, Jesus renounced killing, in word and deed, and this still rather drastically limits his governing options. This commitment is indissolubly connected to his eccentric decision to be elevated to his throne on a Roman cross. He also failed spectacularly in his second kingly duty. Not only did he fail to produce an heir, but it seems that he was in fact a eunuch. Maybe he was only a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom of God, as he described one of the relevant categories, but he may as well have also been a eunuch by birth. He uses both categories in Matthew 19, indicating that the first generation of Christians were aware of what we would today call an intersex condition. Which kind of eunuch was he? If Jesus is the Word of God, the divine structuring principle of everything that exists, then for him the distinction between being a eunuch by choice and a eunuch by birth collapses: for him to choose to be a eunuch could just as easily hold his choice to be born as a eunuch. The fact that Jesus was a eunuch still scandalizes plenty of people today. Far beyond a mere matter of personal discipline or abstinence, in context the issue is especially one of governance. His job wasn’t to end the line of David, but to continue it. In his failure to beget an heir, as in his failure to kill, Jesus was by all appearances a completely deficient king: his generation is the last generation of the line, even if it continues to draw adoptive siblings into the royal family through the rebirth of baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. This deficiency relates directly to the way in which a monarch is seen to embody the nation. And this brings us back to the use of “Son” in Matthew in a way that calls back to the Torah’s much earlier usage: “the Son of God” is first and foremost Israel itself, Israel who was limping Jacob.
Consider this from Matthew 2:
So was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
The Hosea reference is here, and it refers to God’s tender love for the nation of Israel, analogizing the nation to a beloved child:
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called,
the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
and they burned incense to images.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
a little child to the cheek,
and I bent down to feed them.
Ephraim was Joseph’s son, born of an Egyptian mother before the Exodus. As we see throughout Matthew, the Exodus narrative is constantly in view as we talk about Jesus: he personifies the nation in its own Exodus, which will become, within the generation, an exodus from Judah itself.
And Hosea is also calling back to Exodus 4 here, where Moses is instructed to say this to Pharaoh:
Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Israel is My son, My firstborn. “So I said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may serve Me’; but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn.”’
As we will see, the Passover feast that recollects these events is there at the climax of Matthew, right before the end, just as this Passover text is drawn to mind by Matthew 2’s reference to it, right after the start.
Why are firstborn sons so significant? Among other things, across the Ancient Near East they generally received a greater inheritance by law and were expected to carry on the leadership of the family after their father died. To kill the first-born son is to decapitate the leadership of an ethne, or nation, or an Empire. At the time an Empire was generally dynastic in nature. Even Rome, by that time, had collapsed into dynastic rule after Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C.
Of course, in Matthew a firstborn son does indeed die as well. But here, as elsewhere, Jesus is on the hook instead of his enemies. To draw on an image from patristics, it is by this hook that he catches the Slanderer, Satan himself: in dying on the cross, he demonstratively judges the wickedness of the abusive power of Empire, and he draws all subsequent biological generations into mourning the evils of Empire. It is precisely in these apparent failures, by the standards of normal political power, that he also solidaristically joins in the nation of Judah’s coming failure in its encounter with the Romans. Instead of crushing the dynasty of Titus and killing off his first-born, the dynasty of David is crushed in this anointed son. If Jesus is the first-born Son, embodying the nation itself, then a first-born Son is indeed killed in Matthew: the first-born Son of God. If he’s the Messiah, then it’s over. It’s the end for Judah with all of its promises. It’s the end of the olam to olam and generation to generation transmission of the Davidic dynasty. His death warns of a time of the most horrifying desolation for the people of Judah, of enormous personal suffering … and what’s more, of the crushing disappointment of their hopes to establish their own Judahite Empire into which the plunder and offerings of the world would pour, as they poured into other rising and falling Empires.
Worst. Son. Ever.
Just as Caesar was born from his mother’s dying womb, something is born from the dying side of collapsing Judah as well. Something really strange occurs, something that really doesn’t have a comparable precedent or following act in world history. Various attempts to duplicate aspects of his program have been made, even though the blueprint is now out there to copy. Still, no imitator has managed to create anything close to the trans-national family of 2 billion dynastic siblings that Jesus generated. Sometimes people argue that the approach taken by Jesus indicates the he did not expect history to continue in any recognizable form. It is worth considering the possibility that he was actually history’s most impactful political innovator, with the largest long-run impact of any dynastic ruler, precisely because he reconfigured the game of governance in ways that were so profound and effective that plenty of people still don’t fully appreciate his brilliance … even though we’ve been observing its strange effects for millennia.
Recall that in Genesis 1, we are told that all of humanity bears the image of God. This, too, is the language of royal dynastic sonship. The King and/or high priest bears the image of God, as a child of God. This makes enormous intuitive sense. Don’t kids look like their parents? Don’t kids copy the same form as their parents, to put it more Platonically? In contrast to that, in Genesis 1 we find ancient egalitarianism of a sort that remains as striking to us today as it was then, in the claim that all of humanity bears the image of God, and not just a select few. What would it mean for a group of US citizens today to say, “Yes, we’re all the President. Humans are all the President as a matter of birthright.” Huh? How do we even begin to work something like that out?
Jesus carries forward the same egalitarian impulse, and in Matthew he especially does it in Abrahamic and Davidic modes. He reproduces royal siblings in the most stunning abundance, not through biological reproduction (which is really very inefficient) but through spiritual reproduction. Spirit means breath, and here spiritual reproduction happens through speech acts and baptism. Through the Divine Breath (Holy Spirit) that is the power of the Divine Word (Jesus), huge numbers of people are born into the dynastic and Davidic family of Jesus. This prodigal practice of royal adoption is still scandalous today, by the way, but that’s the idea. That’s what the new birth of baptism is about, whether we like it and feel comfortable with it or not. It turns out that Jesus would be history’s most fecund person if his siblings, by baptism, were his children. Instead, he highlights that his Father and Mother, the Speaker Elohim and the Holy Ruach, are the source of all fecundity. Not bad, for a eunuch.
What’s more, this Son of David also does crush his opponents. However, his opponents aren’t just other Empires. His opponent is the imperial power of death and humiliation itself, and he crushes that on the cross. I do believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but you don’t have to believe in it for this to make enormous sense. How the hell did Jesus establish his dynasty without killing anyone? He did it by turning his own death against the very Empire that killed him, by spiritually (communicatively) changing the socio-political meaning of death itself. Rome controlled his flesh for a time, but he controlled the story. They tried to put him in their story by putting him in shackles, but he had already put their plan into his own story first. In this, Jesus models the Urform, the prototype, of non-violent resistance that manages to hold and overcome violence. Don’t let them put you in their story, but put their oppression into your own story of triumph. His enemy isn’t Rome, exactly. His enemy is the domination of human beings through abuse, and he uses Rome (against its own stated interests) to help him crush it. He wields Rome as his own sword, but he wields it against death and torture themselves. And unlike David, who could not build the Temple because he was a warrior and had shed blood, Jesus won without killing anyone at all. As a result, he was also able to establish a Temple, which he did in himself.
And so regardless of any other theological convictions we might bring to the table, it is reasonable to see Jesus as both Son of Man and Son of God, in the relevant senses. We just have to account for the distinctly non-violent and egalitarian nature of his approach to governance.
Our final term involving intergenerational persistence, especially of governance, is generally translated as “nation.” The translation works well on multiple levels, especially because in English today “nation” communicates that something is a group agent and that it is related to natality. Here are two instructive uses of the term:
For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.
Matthew 25:31–33 and 37:
But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left… Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink?’
Because the Greek “ethne” is etymologically related to our word “ethnic,” sometimes people will argue that ethnicity is in play here, more than governance and group agency. But nations are depicted as group entities that can wage war, welcome and care for the hungry, and talk, at least symbolically. In normal English, nations are similar kinds of agents. They can welcome refugees or reject them, they can have public policy that feeds people or doesn’t, they can wage wars, they can provide for their prisoners (or not), and they are even said to speak. For example, the United States has issued warnings to Russia about further possible sanctions in response to Russia’s continued invasion of Ukraine. Nations are spoken of as agents in all of the senses we find in Matthew. Daniel 7 and 8 provide the essential background for Matthew here, and there we also see empires described as a sheep (ram) and a goat, with their wars illustrated through the actions of these representative animals. The basic approach remains familiar to us in the form of political cartoons, which provide us with our own recognizable animal vocabulary for important group agents: Russia is a bear, America is an eagle, the Republicans are an elephant, the Democrats are a donkey, etc. Then and now, “nation” is used to talk about governments as group agents, quite plainly and explicitly.
In fact, Daniel (and related literature, like Enoch) provide a complete and explicit vocabulary of images for us, including an illustration of what it means when a nation is struck with divine fire. It means that its political power, and especially its military power, is broken. The most salient example is in Daniel 7, which includes a vision in which four Empires, represented by beasts, arise. Then the fourth beast, associated with the Greco-Roman Empire that dominated Jerusalem during the time of Jesus, is salted with fire and defeated. Still, this explicitly is not the end of history. That’s why Daniel 7:12 says:
As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but an extension of life was granted to them for an appointed period of time.
Daniel 7:26–27 is explicit about what it means when the Greco-Roman beast is blasted with heavenly flames:
But the court will sit for judgment, and his dominion will be taken away, annihilated and destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, the dominion and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him.
In Daniel 8, we also see goat imagery explicitly associated with the Greco-Roman Empire, which helps us map even more directly between the goats that are burned in Matthew 25, and those nations that behave like the Greco-Roman goat. Notice that here the Persia of Cyrus the Great is likened to a sheep, a ram. Cyrus’s policy of religious tolerance allowed the people of Judah to resettle and re-establish their Temple and local governance. The ram had received the Judeans kindly and blessed them, and so it becomes the pattern of a good nation in Matthew 25. The moral of the story is this: if you’re a government be like Cyrus, not like the Greek Antiochus Epiphanes who desecrated the Temple. It won’t work out well for you if you go the way of the goats.
In ancient discourse, the uncanny agents of human government were also often described using the language of gods. When Babylon waged war, the god Marduk waged war. And when Babylon came to dominate the other political entities in its orbit, Marduk became the chief god over them all. Buildings could also be used for this, and gods and temples and palaces were constantly associated with one another, and with governance. This, too, makes sense and is still quite familiar to us. The White House represents our seat of government here in the US. As the structures that hold the judges, executive bureaucracy, treasurers, Senators or other similar agents of governance, buildings also nicely represent nations or branches of governance.
But the language of nations provides a third way of talking about these group agents: they are understood as an extended family. Jacob (and by extension, his greater extended family) was Israel. His brother Esau was Edom, the kingdom to the South of Judah that shared a history and cultural similarities with them. (Because Herod and his seed were Edomite, Edom will feature prominently in our reflections here.) And the Kingdom of Judah was, well, Judah: one of the sons of Jacob, who was Israel. We see similar patterns in the United States. For example, based on my mothers’ genealogical work we think that I might have some distant Lenape ancestors, although the nation of our ancestor Salome is difficult to reconstruct. Regardless of my own genealogy, among the First Nations they were called the grandfathers: the idea was that the other related peoples had originated from them, as Judah came from Jacob who was Israel. This mode of speaking didn’t center gods or buildings, but instead used natality (birth relations) or adoption (what primitive anthropologists called “fictive kinship”) to articulate the familial character of the group agent. It makes sense that natality is often preferred to gods in Hebrew literature, as a way of speaking about the collective agents of nations and Empires. Israel is Jacob and Judah is Judah; Judah wasn’t personified in the angel Ariel quite as much. The Hebrew Bible routinely personifies its nations based on non-god ancestors, rather than deified ancestors or deified angels.
So when ethne rises against ethne and kingdom rises against kingdom, and nations are judged, it is perfectly explicit that conflict among geopolitical agents is in view.
Still, there is one major wrinkle with the language of “nation” in English. The word doesn’t immediately draw empires to mind for us, thanks to the recent contrast that history has drawn between nation-states and the explicit international Empires that preceded our current global order. In the time of Jesus, the modern nation-state wasn’t the primary group agent, but the upshot is that nations and nationality weren’t contrasted with Empire in the way we contrast them. After all, we’re talking about things like the Greek Empire and the Assyrian Empire, names for the nationalities of the people who ran these giant tax farms. The Greek Empire wasn’t the Eurasian Union. It was Greek. We can also say it was Alexander’s Macedonian Empire, but we generally identify it by its broader linguistic category today, in part because Alexander failed to establish a dynasty due to his sudden death. Still, we can get more specific in talking about these ancient nations, and when we do natality often comes roaring into view again. For example, Antiochus Epiphanes was the scion of the Seleucid family whose name identifies that particular branch of Greek Empire: the Seleucid Empire. Daniel 8 concerns itself directly with that goat’s fourfold division, nicely intimating the broader Greek ‘family’ even as it focuses on the violent inheritance of the Seleucids. Surreal, these growing and spreading horns artfully combine an image of violence and the image of a family tree. The result is an uncanny and monstrous hybrid of the two: the horns of Empire, in the mind’s eye, are trees of death. Note as well that Greek continued as the language of governance in the Eastern Empire, even when the Romans seized their share of the tax farm. So Second Temple Judeans identified all of them as part of the same damn goat, all connected by Greek nationality and modes of domination. So yes, the nations could certainly be empires, and the Roman Empire was (in Judah and Israel) Greek.
Holding the Generation of Generations
There is a refrain among the many refrains in the book of Daniel that we are now positioned to understand: “King, may you live לְעָלְמִ֥ין”. May you live lᵉ’alamin, the Aramaic equivalent of lᵉ’olām. More literally, the phrase might have indicated “to the limits of what is perceived/understood”, and the king would have hopefully heard this as a vast expanse of time, perhaps even “to the end of created time.” When you’ve been taken as a hostage into captivity, you learn to use double-entendres, and much of the beauty of Daniel 5 hinges on the fact that the phrase can also easily indicate this: King, may you live until you die. And by extension, may your dynasty end with you. And indeed, in chapter 5 the book of Daniel describes precisely this sort of dynastic collapse, with its famously indecipherable Hebrew writing on the wall. Of course, Daniel could decipher the codes of the oppressed. But King Belshazzar, who had stolen the Temple’s cups, couldn’t understand. And so he drank their wrath and suffered the end of his line. The double entendre of the phrase perfectly captures the crucial dynamic ambiguity of this language. It is just this ambiguity that makes the language so useful for the many forms of subversive linguistic play that we find in the literature of the crucified Messiah.
It is against this backdrop of olamic phrases expressing limitation, even as Belshazzar heard only what he wanted to hear, that we find the Danielic hope of a Davidic Son of Man who would not merely live לְעָלְמִ֥ין. In stark contrast to Belshezzar’s line that is rapidly replaced by the Medes, who are soon enough replaced by another dynasty themselves, the Son of Man’s Davidic dynasty will last longer than merely lᵉ’alamin. With the amplification and capacity for hearing the subtle notes that this study has given us, we can see the significance of the language of Daniel 7, which contrasts with Belshazzar in its claim that the Son of Man’s government extends to the olamic limit, and even to the generation of generations. The exact meaning of this phrase is, of course, contestable, but it is distinct for being the only triple-olamic phrase to be found in the Aramaic or Hebrew canon. It would have been fitting in Matthew’s time, and is fitting today, to suggest that this is the most comprehensive expression of time that can be found with olamic language. We might say that Daniel claims the Son of Man’s dynasty will not only hold this generation, and it will not only hold the sequence of generations, but it will hold the general process by which generations are generated in the first place. Was this Daniel’s original intent? The contrast between the mere “to the limit” of Babylon, and the expansiveness of Daniel 7, is plain enough. Insofar as the author was competent, both the ironic use of the more limited phrase in Daniel 5 and the expansive usage in Daniel 7 are intentional and aren’t merely different means of saying the exact same thing. The mapping of the context, the language, and its implications is deeply and nicely consilient, because Daniel’s aim is to elevate the Son of Man over the ‘olamic beastly Empires represented by Belshazzar. That is as far as reconstruction can take us. Nonetheless, Daniel also sees beyond the limits of authorial intent: it anticipates that which it cannot see, that which goes not only continuously on until ‘olam, but beyond it. This much the text is also explicit about: Daniel has visions that he does not understand, whose ends he cannot perceive even when he is shown them. So we honor Daniel’s mastery of the ‘olamic even if we read apocalyptically, beyond the limits of what its author could see.
The genius of Jesus then, as the generator of generations, is rooted in the fact that he was a non-violent eunuch. Constrained by his covenant (Matthew 5–7), the chronically failing path of Belshazzar in Daniel 5 was closed to him; Daniel 7 assures us of their eventual ends. Still, a different path was etched into the wall of history with Matthew 5 and the promises of endurance laid out in Matthew 7. Matthew’s Gospel, then, comes to concern itself a great deal with the literal generation that is passing away there in 70 AD. But in all of this, it is also capable of playing most profoundly with the notion of the last generation. The last generation of the Kingdom of Judah can also come to stand in for the final generation in a very specific way that we can now see plainly. If baptism makes us all the Davidic siblings of Jesus, the equalization that this draws us into is not merely social, but temporal as well. Aren’t you in the same generation as your siblings? The final generation is the generation of the siblings of the Messiah, who are born into his family through baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit.
Insofar as these dynamics have been missed, I would suggest it is because we as the church have often betrayed the very covenant Jesus articulates in Matthew 5–7. And so we have sunk into various forms of temporal snobbery: snobberies of the past and snobberies of the future. It doesn’t take all that much to recover the depth and beauty of the names, the words, that are there … just a desire to listen to the rage of a hostage like Daniel in Babylon. Without too terribly much effort, just a bit of death to the imperial self, we can hear their language anew. They spoke with names so deep and names so true, they were blood to them but dust to you, oh mighty sons of Belshazzar. (Belshazzar may, himself, be a symbolic figure representing Babylon in the abstract, as the general figure of Empire. If so, it just means that he all-the-more perfectly brings together the persistent illusions of Empire and its ever-elusive dreams of intergenerational dynastic permanence.)
3 Institutions of Governance in First Century Judah:
The language of nations is especially used to explain group agents as wholes, and so it tends to focus on nations outside of Judea in the literature of Judea. People tend to see others as less-differentiated wholes, but they perceive the divisions within their own groups more acutely. The psychological mechanism is called outgroup homogeneity bias. So it is fitting that we move now from the language of the nations to the inner workings of the nation of Jesus, and the organism of government reveals its particular organs.
The language of Sonship and Generations describes the dynastic character of Kingship. However, this does not provide a complete account of how ancient Judeans understood governance. We can briefly approach this by noting central categories that substantially, but imperfectly, resemble our own internal categories of governance.
Kingship is to the Executive Branch as Temple is to the Judicial Branch as the Lawgiver Moses is to the Legislative Branch as Prophecy is to the Media. Like the media, prophecy represents a less formal fourth estate that is responsible for truth-telling, sometimes silenced, and prone to corruption when reduced to propaganda. Then, as now, propaganda leads to disconnection from reality, maladaptive behaviors, and eventually national death.
Notably, the question of violence is at the center of the division of powers as presented in Hebrew scripture. Why couldn’t King David build the Temple? Because he was a soldier with blood on his hands, and this was closely related to his participation in sexual abuse. Recall that the primary forms of uncleanliness that needed to be purged before entering the Temple involved death and sexual fluids, and recall that Jesus was a eunuch who never killed. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus does overturn the tables of the money changers as an act of prophetic communicative street theater, but he does not establish his dynasty through the normalized means of killing and sexual generation. In fact, on the cross he is the firstborn son who is killed instead. And it works.
Why couldn’t Moses, the Lawgiver, enter the Holy Land? Because he violently struck the stone that God had provided for water, using force when he had been commanded by God to use words. Recall that Jesus uses words rather than force to establish his law, and that this is in fact at the heart of the law he articulates in Matthew 5–7 in the Sermon on the Mount. The scene is framed precisely using Mosaic imagery. The message is really quite clear: here is the awaited Lawgiver with a new covenant, this time issued in the land itself, just in time, because soon the land will be split like a seed. Importantly, the form of covenantal divine law in Moses is about national life and national death. When Moses sets before his people the way of life and death, there at the end of Deuteronomy, he is unambiguously talking about the birth and death of their nation. Already there, he is warning of the exile that would come, signaling a time of national death. But wait. On the other side of it, as the prophets foretold, the sheep Cyrus would provide for a national rebirth. But this would soon be followed by a fresh and horrible corpsing of Judah beneath the Roman boot. Lawgiving, then, was fundamentally a divine covenant-making, intimately linked to national lifetimes much more directly than to an individual’s lifetime.
That covers the more formal branches of government. How do prophets and violence relate? Prophets were routinely punished, wrongly, for warning against national failure, understood as the enforcement of covenantal terms. They were routinely treated as if they had done the violence themselves, when in fact they were only warning of the violence to come, if the current rut ruled their steps. Then and now, loyal truth telling is often seen as betrayal, and traitorous flattery is often seen as loyalty. There’s a long and continuing tradition of powerful people killing (or at least punishing) the messengers who attempt to remove planks from our collective eyes. This confusion between warning and killing is precisely at the heart of the false accusation that gets Jesus killed in Matthew 26: he is accused of saying that he would tear down the Temple. The truth was that he warned of its destruction and the nation’s destruction, and he worked to rescue those who would listen. He also rescued the national system of governance itself by listening deeply to what Torah had been saying all along about violent governance. In renouncing violence and renouncing the establishment of a biological dynasty, Jesus was able to unite and integrate the four major categories of Judahite governance in himself. He then multiplied his dynasty, the Davidic one, more durably and quickly than any King before or since: his aion (lifetime) is the original, but countless people have copied the form he revealed to us in his own life. Christians have, of course, often betrayed this heritage and become the blind and dumb Empire ourselves. It has happened so many times in the past 2,000 years. But the upshot of that is this: we praise the very king who condemns us and our petty national projects. When we arrive at the throne of his judgment, this is what he has to say to all of our imperial parodies of his reign: “Get away from me, evil doers. I never knew you.” Indeed, we often haven’t known him from the wind.
Matthew in Outline
Here, I’ll follow The Bible Project’s outline of Matthew, because this means you can easily supplement my discussion with their videos and other materials. Their combination of visual and audio explication is, I think, the best way to initially internalize the shape of the book overall. Their perspective on the fivefold structure of Matthew, which mirrors the fivefold structure of Torah, is embraced by leading Matthew scholars such as Dale Allison. My own view doesn’t require that we see this as the author of Matthew’s conscious design (whatever the author’s name really was), nor does it require that this be the only structure in Matthew. It could well be the intentional outline of the book, but we won’t detain ourselves with those debates here. If you haven’t watched those videos or considered Allison’s work, I highly recommend you take a little time with The Bible Project’s engaging and brief videos before before diving in here.
Genesis of Jesus
The Story so Far (Matthew 1–3)
Matthew starts with a genealogy and two birth narratives. In the first birth narrative Jesus is born to Mary by the Holy Spirit. In the second birth narrative he is baptized by John, in water, and the Holy Spirit falls like a dove (echoing the Spirit hovering over the Genesis waters) and confirms that he is the Son of God. As in all of the major theophanies (self-revelations) of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, the underlying Aramaic and Hebrew language for Her is feminine and the imagery has deep and powerful maternal associations. (More on that here.)
The genealogy tells us of the Genesis of Jesus in the governmentally-focused way that especially characterizes Matthew’s Gospel. The genealogical narrative emphasizes Abraham, David and the Babylonian exile, all central to the boldly inventive and counter-intuitive approach to governance that is taken by Matthew’s Jesus. The Abrahamic covenant involved an unconditional promise from God that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s seed. The Davidic covenant involves the unconditional divine promise that a royal Davidic line would continue from generation to generation. (And Daniel’s Son of Man picks this up and emphasizes a vision of this extending to the generation of all generations, spoken in the context of the Babylonian captivity that brought national death, and national rebirth.) And then what hangs over Matthew historically is a repetition of the Babylonian captivity: the national death of 70 AD. It is implicitly followed, in the pattern established by the Torah and Prophets and in Matthew’s genealogy, by national rebirth.
Matthew 1:17 draws out its structure explicitly:
So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.
Recall that national life and death is precisely always in view in Torah as well. When Moses says, “I set before you life and death,” in Deuteronomy 30, there is no real ambiguity around what kind of organism’s life and death is in view: the organism is the nation. The birth narrative of Jesus carries this pattern of national concern forward: as its Messiah, he is identified with the nation of Israel by directly overlaying his life story and the nation’s life story. So his life is the life of the nation, his departure from Egypt is his nation’s Exodus, his testing in the desert is the nation’s testing in the desert after escaping Pharoah, his death is the death of the nation, and his resurrection is the resurrection of the nation. We, too, identify nations with the ones who govern them.
Although the Exodus draws so quickly into view in Matthew 2, let’s spend some time on the genealogy, which is explicitly structured around the number fourteen (named explicitly, but applied in a rough sense). Might this number have something to do with the Exodus narrative as well? Whether it does or not, it is hard to deny that Matthew wants us to think about the number fourteen here. Everything has been carefully arranged in just this way: Matthew has told us fourteen, and then told us fourteen, and then told us fourteen, and then he has told us that he told us fourteen and fourteen and fourteen. So there is some sort of point here, and only the dullest of readers could miss that there is presumably some kind of point. But what is the point? Consider that in the end (of Matthew), we will have a Passover feast, the feast commemorating the liberating Exodus of the people from bondage in Egypt. This feast frames the death of the Lamb of God on the cross, and so the entire Gospel reaches its climax at the pinnacle of a Passover. In this context, we should also notice that Passover starts the festival year (according to Leviticus 23). How do you count the time of Passover? It is 14 days (yom, or periods of light and darkness) from the start of the year. For many people today, our own sense of time is also marked out by the seven days that move us from sabbath to sabbath. We should also note that marking time was one of the chief tasks of ancient thinkers and intellectuals. Plato’s Timaeus is similarly interested in time keeping, because it was a basic task of monumental social importance. Time-keeping empowers societies to synchronize and organize their activities, so that we can coordinate with each other and with the rest of nature. Music moves us together in the moment, and calendars move us together through the years.
So why might Matthew center the feast of liberation from bondage in Egypt and identify it so closely with Jesus? Passover is how you say, “Let my people go! Set the oppressed laborers free of their crushing bondage!” At least it’s how you say it in Hebrew or Aramaic or English, or any other language where people understand Passover. Some readers of Matthew might consider that in Luke’s Gospel the ministry of Jesus begins with him reading of a passage about Jubilee, although this is lacking in Matthew. Here’s Luke 4:16–21:
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
I would argue that Matthew’s Gospel is saying this as well, but even louder, if more obliquely. The key difference is that Luke is written for a broader and more Gentile audience, who had less familiarity with Torah. Where the relevant cultural background could be taken for granted, as with Matthew’s Gospel, the author is able to say something very similar, only even more loudly, by mobilizing this shared Exodus heritage. Still, this claim might sound dubious to some. I’m going to spend some time explaining why it really shouldn’t, and this will also serve as a nice opportunity to explicitly illustrate how seeking soulful consilience works, as it turns from reconstruction to apocalyptic and back again.
First, reconstruction. This association with Passover and 14 provides, I think, the most simple and consilient interpretation of Matthew’s use of 14. One might speculate that the 14 was just a coincidence that doesn’t matter, or that it means something else. A good suggestion that need not conflict with this one is that 14 is the numerical value of David’s name. Notice that David is centered in the genealogy and in the narrative, and so the point is consilient in the sense that it draws together a core concern of the text as a whole, the immediate text, and the fact that this sort of connection was made in other contexts. I would suggest that reading 14 from the start of the text (mirroring the start of the year) and hearing “Passover” is an even more highly consilient reading. The author, in context, could have easily been seen to be engaged in inspired writing precisely because they wove together related references in a dense network of meaning, all of it consiliently connected around the core message of the text. In this sense, Passover + David is less narrowly probable than Passover OR David, but it is also more like inspired speech and more consilient. Therefore, if we need to explain that the text becomes viewed as Scripture as well, these sorts of dense associations are a sine qua non of the text being received in that way. Of course, all of this has a speculative element from our historical remove, and so we cannot know with any kind of certainty. Still, we can know that for the society that the Romans substantially obliterated a reference like this would have been far less oblique than it has become for us. In fact, it might have even seemed a bit on the nose for a keeper of calendars, such as a scribe.**
So let’s take this association on board and roll with it a bit farther, a bit deeper into the realm of speculation. In this discussion, you will find a lot of deep resonances between my argument here and the standard academic review of the word’s meaning in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. The Genesis of Jesus starts with the notion of a generational “yom”; a yom is generally a day, but can refer to any period of time, especially in a context as deeply influenced by Daniel as Matthew is. Yom works especially beautifully if it refers to another period of light and darkness, which will always echo the first yom of Genesis. For example, a year moves from darker to lighter parts, and so it works fairly nicely as a yom. But a generation is an even more poetically redolent yom. To draw out that poetry, consider that a lifetime is a period when a person sees the world’s light and then goes on into darkness. And a generation is a set of lifetimes that moves from the darkness before birth, a darkness that echoes the sabbatical beginning of the day at sunfall, and on into light and then back into death. Time proceeds from olam to olam and from generation to generation, which is to say that it moves from generational day to generational day. So it is poetically very fine to start the Genesis of Jesus (the promised liberator) with a Passover of Generations, and then a Passover of Generations, and then a Passover of Generations, each related to an even broader moment in the liberation of humanity: Abraham’s dawn (and twilight), David’s dawn (and twilight), the Babylonian exile’s strange dawn (and twilight), and to conclude with the Messiah’s dawn on the eve of the 7th week of generations. And so we are also invited to consider the birth of Jesus as the start of a sabbath of weeks of generations. (Ah yes, of course, 3 of 14 is also 6 of 7 … so the birth of Jesus in time marks the start of the Sabbath of Weeks of Generations.)
This reading of the genealogy’s sense of time accords well with Daniel 7’s notion of a decisive victory over the Greek (or Greco-Roman) beast, even as the other beasts persist for a time. Whether one fully accepts this reconstruction in all of its particulars, it still serves to illustrate a basic point that is beyond reasonable dispute: the apocalyptic genre was certainly not confined to expressions of utter finality. As Daniel 7 illustrates, it could also indicate a decisive shift even as other action continues. If Daniel and Matthew are apocalyptic texts, then apocalyptic is not only (or even distinctively) the literature of ends, but is also a literature of turning points. Read in this way, Matthew’s genealogy consiliently fits with Daniel 7 in their shared capacity to express a turning point or climax, rather than a strict conclusion. As we will see at the end of Matthew, which plays with the books genealogical introduction in very interesting ways, it is precisely this sense of continuing action that the text leaves us with. To force this to be a literature of endings only, based on the abuse of a genre classification as “apocalyptic,” is to simply fail to read well at the most basic level.
This pattern of taking 7 groups of 7 is itself a repeated feature of the calendar in Second Temple Judah. The author of Matthew would have known to count the time from Passover to the feast of Weeks with 7 times 7 yoms (a week of weeks, or 49 days) from the next portion of Leviticus 23. Continuing on to Leviticus 25, we find an expansion of the pattern of sabbath into years and weeks of years (periods of 49 years). Each 7 years, the bondsman was to be set free, itself an echo of both sabbath rest and of Passover’s liberatory themes. And then each 7 of 7 years there was supposed to be a Jubilee Year when land and people were to rest and be freed from debt and bondage. These are the fundamental elements of time-keeping in Matthew’s context. Matthew’s skillful use of 7’s and 14’s, if that’s what is happening, displays familiarity with it, as well as a sense that a certain kind of culmination of time is at hand. We might say that Matthew’s Gospel announces that a time of liberation drew near on that Passover: a Sabbath of Generations. But we also might speculate a bit farther and see the beginning of the final two weeks of generations before the Jubilee of Generations: after the 49th generation, the trumpets are supposed to sound (Leviticus 25:9) to announce the beginning of the regular Jubilee. (Whether they do, or not, is a question of the faithfulness of the people.) This sense of time-keeping is also presumably what underlies notions like the 7 weeks (7 of 7 days) in apocalyptic literature such as Enoch and Daniel, , and may also underly notion’s like Augustine’s influential theory of 6 millennia of history that are held in a 7th eternal millennium. 
I want to pause for a bit and reflect on my method here. To a certain sort of soul, the preceding reflections might seem awfully fanciful and speculative. It is somewhat speculative as a matter of historical reconstruction, although my speculations are more warranted than speculating that these 14’s are just incidental. (The text emphasizes it and has been laboriously constructed in this way, so it is unlikely that it is incidental). So I don’t think it is remotely fanciful to at least connect time keeping and Passover here, before considering where else this framework might take our imaginations. Passover was central for the author of Matthew’s community, and it is absolutely central to the text of Matthew. Also, the number 14 isn’t a particularly common number in the Hebrew Bible and we aren’t looking for a hidden instance of the number; we are looking at a practical and well-known use of the number in Leviticus 23, and we are looking at closely related structures in our comparison text. (This sort of intertextuality is normal and well-documented in this body of literature.) Also consider that we are talking about time keeping in various senses, so the correspondence is direct, explicit, and quite immediate.
Far less overt references are taken for granted routinely in normal communication, as I’ll illustrate with a contemporary example next. Here, as elsewhere, these examples can help us (in our context) more clearly see how quickly we process familiar references, even when people are playing with them in novel ways. Consider this story, bristling with contemporary references, which is also a gloss on an episode from a popular comedy today:
Once upon a time (which, as we all know, means that something happened exactly once, at or upon a specifically markable time), there was a sales office for a paper company.
Now two new workers have been hired and have come for their first day of work. (Ah, the tense has shifted and we have jumped forward into our own moment!)
The first new guy begins to boast. “I’m going to work faster and harder than any of you sluggards, and in 6 weeks time I’ll be the boss of all of you. Have any of you even READ 7 Habits?”
An old worker who has been here since the company’s birth sighs. She says, “Yeah, that hare is going to win the race.”
The second new worker is furious at her. “How can you say that you stupid old b-”, but then he stops himself, because he’s been working on being less abusive in his communications. More politely he says to her, “Can’t you see that this guy is a total jerk? He’s never going to get promoted. He’s not going to win any races around here and I can’t believe you’re siding with him. You should side with me. I’m diligent and I know 6 ancient languages and I’m a fabulous communicator with enormous intellectual integrity, unlike you lot. You’re all so dummbbbb!”
The woman just shakes her head and explains to him the Tortoise and the Hare, and that she was sarcastically referring to that story in order to criticize the aggressive hare who has just arrived at the office. She’s on his side here. Or at least she was.
But the second new guy isn’t satisfied. “That’s ridiculous,” he says. “Your defensive shell is all cracked and there’s nothing that can be done to repair it! There’s no way you were saying all of that. You were obviously siding with him as any intellectually honest person, a person like me, can see. But then I stood up to you and now you’re backpedaling and making excuses because you realized what an insufferable as-”, and again, he stops himself because he remembers all those court ordered anger management classes he had to take.
And lady wisdom just shrugs and walks away.
In the same way that our wise woman could easily use a reference, the Greco-Jewish author of Matthew, the sort of person who writes the Genesis of Jesus, would have known exactly what Passover and 14 yoms from the start were about. It meant: the time for the liberation of the poor is at hand. The Exodus of our nation, and all of the peoples, has arrived. A superficial analysis might glance at Matthew, notice that the reading of the Jubilee scroll is absent from it, and hastily conclude that the liberation of the oppressed is not centered in this book. (And good old gentile Luke, they might think anti-semitically, is much more concerned about economic liberation than that Jewy old Matthew). Such a reader doesn’t understand how much more is more compactly said with the word “hare” or the word “Passover” or with the number “14” by a competent communicator in their own context. The Tortoise and the Hare provides a nice illustration of a widely shared contextual reference that we can play with today, but we should note that this reference is relatively obscure in our culture, compared to the centrality of Passover for Second Temple Judah. We don’t even have an annual Tortoise festival or mark our calendar’s start with a commemoration of the Tortoise! If that’s an easy reference for us to catch, it would have been vastly easier for Matthew’s author to count on people catching all of these references to Passover, Exodus … and perhaps even Jubilee.
Establishing the Kingdom’s Legal Covenant (Matthew 4–7)
Jesus is then tested by the Slanderer (Satan) in the desert, articulating the way in which his reign is defined in direct contradiction to the normal way in which governments govern. He then begins to call his 12 disciples, reminding one of the 12 tribes of limping Jacob. He then announces his establishment of the new government, arguably understood as a renewal of God’s covenant with Israel. Crowds gather and then Jesus articulates the foundational covenant, establishing the nation’s legal framework in a way that uses the familiar form of commandments, concluding with divine promises and consequences.
When Matthew 5–7 is read as a whole, we see that the crowds remain present throughout. The most consilient reading is that Jesus is openly instructing his disciples directly, allowing anyone else who is following along to hear (and potentially heed) as well. [5.1], [5.2] Those who hear and heed will receive the blessings promised: they will build on rock and what they build will endure. Those who do not, like the current elite in Judah, will see their house (dynasty/Temple) fall.
That is the Sermon on the Mount, and the text is clearly intended to draw the pattern of covenantal mountains to mind. In this covenant, his non-violent governing philosophy is explicitly articulated so that it can be trained: those who reject violence will escape the self-destructive cycle of violence, even though they suffer violence. But those who participate in violence will eventually fall by the very swords that they look to for life. If you want to build things that last, you will build on the same rock of faithfulness to this covenant that Jesus builds his government on. Violence, the Slanderer, and everything associated with them are all ultimately sinking sand.
I’ve written this much longer piece on how I read and apply this “Constitution” of the right-side-up government of Jesus here. In general, I will refer to this text as the “Covenant on the Mount” to connect it more directly to its Ancient Near Eastern and Judahite context. My own approach generally follows Dale Allison in terms of the importance of the Mosaic typology: we will treat the Covenant on the Mount as a new covenant proclaimed by a new Moses. [5.3] However, this does not mean that the Covenant of Moses is annulled or overturned by Matthew or Matthew’s Jesus. Rather, its own more geographically limited terms are fulfilled (although not necessarily finally) in the expulsion from the land of Judah. [5.4] Matthew’s Jesus is not starting a new religion or overturning Torah. Rather, he is universalizing and radicalizing its core message, articulating how national life for Israel can carry on even in the wake of the fulfillment of the promises of Deuteronomy, that the people will be expelled from the land. In this, he takes up the prophetic vocation to speak to God’s faithfulness even through the pain and horror of exile, slavery, and national death, and does this in a new (but expected) way by issuing the prophetically promised new covenant. (Jeremiah 31)
In the context of our core conceptual matrix, notice that the Lord’s Prayer (in some manuscripts) concludes with the phrase, “εἰς τοuς αἰῶνας”. Often translated as “forever”, some suggest that a more literal translation is “to the ages.” This is closer, but I think we can do better. Heleen Keizer’s work problematizes both “eternity” and “age” and argues for the enduring force of the word’s basic meaning: lifetime. She doesn’t address New Testament Greek, but her work helps us see how it could be that on the eve of Matthew’s Gospel the word still carried the basic force of “lifetime”, including in related phrases. If the meaning is different here, it is precisely because the force of the New Testament’s distinctive vision changed it. But what if it was later theological wrangling, centuries later, that changed our sense of the language? I think we can carry forward Keizer’s analysis powerfully, and it shows that the basic prior meaning continues to help us make good sense of what is happening here. Following Keizer, a more literal translation could be “for the lifetimes”. But this was a pretty common phrase in Greco-Hebrew literature and we might want something that sounds more common and natural in English to reflect this. We can also massage it slightly in English while remaining quite literal to yield “through the generations.”
Here we have language that reflects the procession of generations that is so often in view in the Septuagint. We might also apply the same reading elsewhere, bringing a resonant beauty to language that has grown familiar: “For yours are the Kingdom, the power and the glory, through the generations. Amen.” This also gives us language that conceptually connects very nicely with the discussion of generation and generations that has lead us to this point in the text as well. But why wouldn’t the author have used “generations” if that’s what they meant to say? In part because they are drawing on the standard association between olam and aion in the Septuagint and will eventually connect this to Platonist conceptions of the genesis of time. This approach adds poetic depth, beauty, subtlety, and referential scope to what they are saying. They weren’t writing for philologists to make their lives easier. They were writing for their audience, to establish a government, and as part of that they were demonstrating linguistic and intellectual virtuosity in their original context. Note as well that precisely because of the Roman genocide that the NT texts address and overcome, there is an immediate break in the linguistic community that produces these texts, and later Roman co-optation further distances us from the original context. Early patristic literature is of real interest here, but it also bears witness to how much of the original context was quickly lost in Roman fire and under Roman boots. (For example, Origen had to travel around, talking to those Rabbis who remained to help him learn the meanings of words precisely because a lot of linguistic continuity had been lost.) If the imperial philologists miss the beauty and power of the language, so much the better: they show themselves to be just like Belshazzar, hearing what he likes instead of what was said, unable to read the writing on the wall. That’s what happens when you have no linguistic ladders left to lift the longing up.
Healing and Helping the Nations (Matthew 8–10)
Next we find 9 stories of healing that show the scope of who Jesus heals and helps: everyone who wants it. In this, Jesus demonstrates (and therefore models) the anti-Imperial character of his reign. He imitates Empire in its outward reach, but contradicts it in just the ways that the covenant from Matthew 5–7 articulates. This section closes with practical advice for those engaged in proclaiming and spreading the Kingdom of Jesus missional work. The aim isn’t merely a matter of good behavior. This text is designed to equip disciples to carry forward the anti-Empire throughout the world, preparing them to deal with opposition through non-violent resistance that is both strategic and innocent. That is to say, through Matthew Jesus instructs us on how to be as innocent as doves, but wise as serpents.
Here it is especially interesting to notice the way in which the word “son” is used throughout this section. Our translations sometimes miss its use, and the various associations it brings.
After healing the Roman Centurion’s servant, Jesus draws on directional imagery that is associated with the ingathering of the four winds (important to Matthew 24), and uses “son” language that also echoes with the death of the son on a Roman cross in Matthew 8:1:
And when Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, imploring Him, and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, fearfully tormented.” Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion said, “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. “For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. “I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed that very moment.
From here, in briefer outline, we see Jesus refer to himself, in his homelessness, as the Danielic Son of Man (8:20), the demons refer to him with the imperial title Son of God (8:29), and then the authority of the Son of Man to forgive sins is invoked (9:6). This kingly and imperial pardoning capacity is still reflected in our executive branch today, in the US, in the form of the Presidential pardon. Jesus then talks about the feasting sons of the bridegroom (9:15). (He is the bridegroom.) This forms a nice little chiastic structure, intentional or not, that is worth noting as a mnemonic aid: sons, Son of Man, Son of God, Son of Man, sons. Then we have a plea for mercy addressing Jesus as Son of David, another appeal to kingly pardon, perhaps of the sort we find in 2 Samuel 19 after the death of David’s Son (!) Absalom.
The final “son” reference in this section comes in the context of the teaching that concludes it. It involves preparation for the kingdom-extending canvassing work that is to follow. By way of encouragement, Jesus says to them:
Truly I tell you , you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
On one level, I think that we have to read this statement with the very same piquant irony that has pervaded so much of the text so far. The Son of Man is already here, as has been abundantly established by this point in the text. So in the most strict and mordantly comical sense, this is true precisely because they haven’t started going through the towns before the Son of Man comes. But of course, they (and we) don’t see what is before us. There’s a lot there to ponder, and I think the humor is intentional. The humor is only further amplified in light of the clear, but implicit, divinity claims that Jesus makes at the conclusion of his discursive engagements with the Pharisees in Matthew 22. More on that later, but here simply notice that if the Son of Man is in fact the Son of God, then he has also always already come: in every Adam, broken is the Word. But this is only at the very outermost edges of Matthew’s beautifully and rigorously restrained, olamic presentation.
Still, there’s another sense in which something new is happening as the disciples go through the towns, proclaiming and demonstrating the covenant that the new lawgiver has proclaimed and that the new king is enacting in fulfillment of prophecy: a government is arriving. While the word used for this arrival is simply the common word for coming and going, erchomai, in this context it draws to mind another key term in debates on this topic: parousia. The coming of a King is the announcement and therefore arrival of their reign: it is precisely by the speech acts proclaiming a government that a government is established, insofar as people heed what is said. So yes, Jesus is the Son of Man and he is already here. But his reign arrives quickly, wherever it is proclaimed and heeded. Why doesn’t he need an army to establish it? That is the true riddle here, as opposed to the question of why the Kingdom supposedly didn’t come when it did. And the answer is the theme of the entire Gospel: precisely because his reign has always already overcome violence itself, based on the nature of its fundamental covenant and related governmental praxis.
God’s Judgment, Our Non-violence (Matthew 11–13)
Next, Matthew shows us three basic types of response to the political canvassing work that Jesus organizes in chapter 10. We find illustrations of positive, neutral and negative reactions, and how the agents of Jesus’s government respond. As someone who spent about a decade doing canvassing work, this is exactly how you still train canvassers today: you notice who is supportive and mainly invest your attention there. But you also acknowledge the reality of neutral responses and of negative responses. It’s their loss, but you carry on. These specific anecdotes illustrate that an organizer’s mentality is at work in the text, and that they have produced a good political training resource. It is no coincidence that the text has continued to generate so many movements and so much social change, often from people directly implementing this training, in the millennia since. And no, you don’t just luck into something like that.
Of course, the stakes involved here in Matthew are much higher than those I’ve experienced in my own canvassing work. The warnings are therefore particularly intense. Taken as a whole, they illustrate the logic of his non-violent government in a world of violence and death.
The death of the nation, marked by the Temple’s destruction, is the catastrophe that hangs over all of the warnings we find in the parables here, lending them force and credibility in the Gospel’s original context. The message is consistent: violence and violent systems destroy themselves, but the non-violent government of Jesus will continue to spread like mustard plants, taking root wherever it finds fertile soil in open hearts. Everyone is invited to join (the seeds are spread prodigally), but not everyone will, at least not within the scope of time that we can observe. Not within time as given with Creation, which is the widest expansion of our olamic concern here. As parables like the account of the weeds and wheat teach, the Kingdom’s work isn’t about sorting that all out here and now. A typical government might need to do that within time, administering justice in the usual sense, but this government simply drives forward in the central task of governance: building faith and training the receptive, while leaving its opponents to rage, destroying themselves and each other.
Those who hear and heed the proclamation, including its new non-violent covenantal law, join the new form of government that will endure through all time and ultimately be vindicated. And sadly, as Jesus warns, the cities that reject the non-violent way of Jesus will be demolished (by Rome). (See the warnings in 11:20–24, for example.) Note that Matthew is written sometime around 70 AD (give or take a couple of decades), and scholars universally see it as being written prior to the Bar Kochba revolt of 132–136 AD. The Roman response to the Bar Kochba revolt eventually results in a horrifying, evil, and even more complete extermination of the community in the smaller towns and countryside. So the prophetic truth-telling of Jesus has a real historical urgency in its immediate context, and also stands as a warning about events that only fully unfolded after it was certainly written. Heedless of the then-growing Jesus movement, the false Messiah Bar Kochba would attempt a final, doomed military resistance against Rome. The devastation in the land was quite complete, and by that point it extended far beyond the capital in Jerusalem. Nonetheless, what played out in that original Temple scenario ended up being copied, horrifically, throughout the land at the hands of the Romans, incited by the false promises of Bar Kochba.
Importantly, Jesus doesn’t rejoice in any of this destruction. Instead, he genuinely and deeply laments that he and his government couldn’t rescue more, because too few people embraced the covenant he pronounced. Still, lament and solidarity remain fundamental to who the Son of Man is. In his own death on the cross, he joins in the suffering of the people under Bar Kochba and Rome as well. Here, too, he carries the Hebrew tradition of prophetic truth-telling forward in the most startling of ways. His demonstrative warning about what is to come is not simply the dramatic breaking of some sticks. The scope of what is to come calls for even more than the dramatic naming of his children in horrifying ways, as Hosea named his children “No Mercy” and “Not My People.” The scandal of his prophetic enactment carries this tradition through to its logical (but not temporal) end: he literally throws his entire body into the act of prophetic warning and prophetic hope-giving. He is the one broken, identifying himself with the Temple and monarchy and legal system and prophetic tradition (dependent, as it all is on that Temple). The Son of God’s fall is the son of God’s fall. And so his subsequent rise then promises their rise as well: just as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
So in this section, Jesus is training the agents of his government, dramatically illustrating the counter-intuitive logic of his Kingdom. Yes, people will sometimes attack and harm and even kill you, but just keep going to the next house (whether that is a family home, or the next temple of a city or nation). Yes, people will resist and become infuriated, but just keep going to the next house. Our opponents can’t kill the message, which produces the loyalty that constitutes government, even though they will kill some of us. The Spirit of Jesus carries on wherever the covenant is articulated and heeded, and its opponents can’t hold that back forever. Instead of getting drawn into counter-violence and opposition, the point is that his followers just keep doing the fundamental work of government instead: building covenant faithfulness by practicing and teaching the enduring covenant of the new government. Prodigally, everyone is invited to receive this training. Those who accept it do, and become a part of the Kingdom of Jesus that has shown its capacity to endure from generation to generation, and perhaps even to the generation of generations itself, to that place beyond time and death from which time arises. (Aidios things, those things that transcend time itself, are not explicitly discussed in Matthew. But by way of Daniel 7 they are gestured at from within our limited olamic location.)
So for example, in Matthew 12:15–32, Jesus identifies himself with Isaiah’s suffering (non-violent) servant in whom the nations will find home. And then we see him issue a famously dire warning against Pharisees who are slandering him, accusing him of casting out demons by Beelzebul. He explains the vast scope of his clemency: any slander against him, the anti-imperial Son of Man, will be forgiven. But slander against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven in this aion or in the next aion. Recall that unworthy behavior in the presence of the Holy Spirit regularly leads to death in the Torah, sometimes instantaneous and at other times unforgiven. It therefore couldn’t be forgiven in this lifetime (aion) for that very reason.
And in the next aion, which at the personal level is naturally the afterlife or next life, Jesus’ claim is that whatever price there is to pay for this will need to be paid. We don’t know what that price is, but there is no particular reason, here, to presume that the price is endless, any more than any other legal consequence for the actions of a finite being are endless. Importantly, the next aion has a temporal aspect, as does this aion; only at the very edges of peripheral implication does the aidios, the truly timeless, come into view in Matthew. This is why translations of “eternity” are inappropriate and confusing: in English today, they can imply that which is truly extratemporal. But in Greek, aionic language is used to express a completeness of time; while not rigidly sequential like days, the sequence of lifetimes (generations) and the entirety of some time are able to hold limited things. In fact, that is precisely the point of aion, as lifetime: it is an indefinitely long period of time that can hold other periods of time, such as a finite prison sentence. It would be absurd to argue that simply because a lifetime is indefinite (or even infinite) that it cannot contain definite terms. You don’t have to know when you’ll die to sign a phone contract either. The next lifetime, too, holds finite punishment just as well as this one does, and there is no implication of an endless punishment just because it pertains to the next life and must be served, whether the next life is indefinite or infinite or its moments precisely numbered.
All of this provides a framework for hearing the multiple layers of meaning embedded in the word aion as it is used here. While I haven’t expanded on the most common interpretation of aion, which contrasts this present age with the age to come, it is especially appropriate to see such a contrast emerging here in the literature of the Second Temple. To the extensive work already done on this topic, I’m drawing in Keizer’s lifetimeish perspective not as a contradiction, but as a means of holding it all more securely and well. We can, for example, also profitably see Jesus talking about this lifetime and the lifetime to come, with substantially similar implications. The primary benefit of bringing “lifetime” back into the discussion is that it allows us to see how naturally this language can talk about a personal lifetime, a national lifetime, and/or the lifetime of the entire created universe (if pressed explicitly to the outermost limits of the language.)
So it is strange, indeed, that normal thinking on the nature of justice is erased from our analyses of these passages. It is as if, when considering the words of Jesus, we suddenly imagine a universe where punishment is either infinite or non-existent (because forgiven). This strange presumption somehow even manages to occlude a lot of peoples’ normal sense of proportional consequences. The norm for debts, fines and other punishments is that they are finite, but not forgiven. Here, all Jesus indicates is that there is one very specific kind of punishment that must be served, not that it is infinite. In the next lifetime, Jesus suggests both here and elsewhere that there will be some costs that must be truly paid: specifically, sins against the Holy Spirit Herself. Understanding aion as lifetime here also helps us engage with the primary lifetime that Matthew, like the Law of Moses, concerns itself with: national life as represented in the person of the Messiah. His warning about sinning against the Holy Spirit also functions as a dire and precise warning about the coming end of national life as the Temple is desecrated and treated as a military fortress. Without directly contradicting the “two ages” understanding of this aion and the next, we can see how “lifetime” allows for a more intuitive, deep and full range of expression across social and temporal scales … a range of expression that seems to be in full use throughout Matthew’s Gospel. Essentially, lifetime can interpretively give us everything that “age” can give, and more. This makes sense: it is the enduring root meaning from which the various secondary implications and metaphors arise. Linguistically, this is a case where a lot is gained by staying close to the root, because the root here is a powerful basic word that remains right at the surface of the text’s meaning after all.
Bread as Gathered Seed (Matthew 14–19)
We start this section with the feeding of the 5,000 (14:13–21), which takes place in the home area of Jesus. Presumably this was near his reported home in Bethlehem of Judea, whose name means House of Bread (13:53–58.) Later, Jesus travels to the fertile lowlands to the north, the House of Israel. There he heals and feeds a crowd of 4,000 that has been there receiving healing and growing hungry for 3 significant days (15:29–39.) On its face, this is a simple demonstration of care and compassion: the gentle Messiah heals and feeds people, and this is how he announces, demonstrates and extends his reign. This is how he gathers and musters his Kingly and Legislative and Prophetic power, as he prepares to mobilize these three sources of legitimacy in order to retake the pinnacle of governance: the Temple itself. Legitimation is meant to produce faith, which lies at the heart of governance. This also helps explain the persistent frustration that we see Jesus express about his disciples’ lack of faith throughout this section. In this context, faith is best understood in the context of covenant faithfulness and legitimation, and not in the common way people in the US often take it. Here in the US, faith often simply means “thinking something really hard” and these passages have often been taken up in a bizarre “power of positive thinking” framework. In the original context, though, the point is that covenant faithfulness creates governance, and faithfulness to a good covenant means that everything is governed well. When that happens, intrusions into personal and social bodies (such as the Roman Legions or the demon Legion) are stopped, because the body-honoring covenant of Jesus is practiced and enacted.
At the core of the intrusions that Jesus addresses, there is the matter of force being used to deprive people of physical and spiritual sustenance. Let’s take some time to notice and ponder how fundamentally linked food, lifegiving, and governance were, and are. The capacity to control grain is a likely explanation for the emergence of early civilizations, monumental architecture, and their various religious political legitimation systems. Individuals captured in these systems were less healthy, smaller, and more prone to disease than people outside of them. Still, the systems themselves developed an increased capacity to wage war, enslave, and use sex for purposes of social control. They did this in the form of prostitution (sacred and otherwise), the breeding of human cattle, and dynastic control. Against the Grain by James Scott provides an excellent review of current archeological work on the emergence and slow spread of these systems, with Egypt and Babylon (with Sumeria behind it) serving as early examples.
In Galilee, the particular manifestation of these patterns of control and domination looked like this: the Romans had placed an Edomite dynasty on the throne of David. These Herodians taxed the fertile lowlands of Galilee at crushing rates. Why? They needed the income to secure their patronage network, military control, and to finance monumental building. The heart of that enterprise was the expanding Temple complex in Jerusalem. The intention, as always with such kings, was to set up a dynasty that would endure for multiple generations. Meanwhile, starvation and dispossession were always a threat to the vast majority of the population; that was the lot of agrarian peasants in the slave machines we call civilization. The Herodians made these ever-present risks, which were dire threats to personal and familial persistence, especially acute. Granted Esau’s fragile legitimacy and his aggressive demands on the peasantry, it makes sense that there were repeated cycles of revolt, crushingly defeated. Devastating to the family systems of the oppressed, these events were also an annoying and costly inefficiency that the Empire preferred to avoid where possible. The construction of legitimacy was supposed to be accomplished through the construction of buildings.
So in the middle of it all, there stood the solitary Temple as a focal point of the daily struggle for legitimation, loyalty and life. And in the center of the Temple, there was bread: yes, the sacred showbread, but also the value extracted from farms and transformed to stone. The social alchemy at work was this: grain was turned to metal through taxation, and the metal included swords and the coin that funded the construction projects and soldiers and tax farmers. The goal was to turn that stone and metal into legitimacy, which would be turned into faith instead of revolt. This way, the Edomites could continue to control the Judean Kingdom and Israel and Samaria to the north, all as their tax farm. But as it turned out, like Esau gobbling up his porridge, the Herodian dynasty was taking all of the food and, in the process, destroying the very dynasty (birthright) they were trying to establish. So when Jesus fed masses of people, he was cutting out the middle men both practically and spiritually: he generated bread and turned it directly into legitimation. Although as Jesus, too, attests, legitimation doesn’t automatically produce faith; we are creatures of inertia and time, after all. Still, in this work of legitimation Jesus fundamentally challenged the transmutations of metal and stone that were starving the people, especially the farmers of Galilee.
So it is fitting that in this section, we see the narrative of the Gospel building to its climax, and we see a wide range of teachings that reflect the deep socio-political and spiritual logic of this non-violent eunuch’s dynasty. Armies march on their stomachs, and here we see Jesus travel from the political center near Jerusalem, up into the lands of the Canaanites, and then over to oppressed Galilee. He is feeding and healing and so gathering the scattered seeds of the Abrahamic (and Adamic) nation. In time a seed turns into a field of grain, and those fields turn to bread. Time had also turned Abraham’s seed into nations through the turning of the wheel of generations, copy after copy after copy.
Although we can’t review everything that is going on this text, I’d like to pause for a longer excursus the encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. I choose it as representative of the whole for two main reasons: first because it uses limitation to gesture beyond limits, and second because it is widely considered a difficult text, and some might think it is especially difficult for my thesis.
First, consider how this text signals the farthest extent of national ingathering that Jesus engages in. In this, it demonstrates precisely the restrained and beautiful way in which Matthew gestures toward a universal scope through rigorous self-limitation: it adopts an olamic perspective on the limits of the world that Jesus could compass with his feet and see with his eyes. However, by the way in which his anti-Empire moves out in all directions, he gestures to the entire world and even beyond. Importantly, such a gesture isn’t always explicit or even implicit in olamic pressing-to-the-limit. Instead, it is in the very particular way that Jesus integrates the “generation of generations” and the “limit of limits” from Daniel 7 that he leverages limitation into the limitless, as calculus leverages the infinitesimal to reach the unreachable asymptote.
Second, this encounter shows Jesus at his most apparently off-putting, for a lot of us today, as he insults the Canaanite woman. How can this be a story of an inclusive and non-violent Kingdom when it looks like an illustration of what an arrogant Judean pig Jesus was? But it is precisely through this affront that Jesus engages in the expansion of his Kingdom announcement, dramatically joining in his own peoples’ pride and resistance in a way that ultimately overcomes it. Consider that just this sort of pride in Judah was what enabled the Temple to act as a legitimating force, even as it starved the people. Sure, they’re starving us, but look at the splendor! Recall that Jesus is on his way from a feeding in Judah to the South to a feeding of the “lost sheep” in Israel, the historical Northern Kingdom that provides Judah with the deep roots of its own historical memory. Recall that Judah was a son of Jacob, limping Israel, but by the time of Jesus the Assyrians had left Judah’s father naked and despoiled. To plenty of Judeans, those from the historic land of Israel were corrupt, because they had been conquered and their seed polluted by the Babylon-inspired Assyrians. Israel had become gentile land, more or less. So this is the dynamic: Jesus is bringing the bread that is him from Bethlehem to the lost sheep in the house of Israel. But along the way he encounters a true pagan from Caanan: someone still farther from the seed of Judah and the Davidic line of Jesus. Someone farther from his center of dynastic legitimation. (The word pagan only arises much later, as a citified Christian way of mocking the agrarian people out there. I choose the word anachronistically, and advisedly, because if Jesus is superseding anything here and now for us, it is Christendom.) Will he imperiously spread his seed even into foreign lands? Importantly, bread and seed and sex are closely linked in this Canaanite encounter and the one preceding it, and so we’ll need to read them together.
Matthew 15:1–28 (NASB 1995):
Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? “For God said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER,’ and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH.’ “But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. “You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you:
‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS,
BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME.
‘BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME,
TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’”
After Jesus called the crowd to Him, He said to them, “Hear and understand. “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.”
Then the disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?” But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant shall be uprooted. “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
Peter said to Him, “Explain the parable to us.” Jesus said, “Are you still lacking in understanding also? “Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated? “But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. “These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.”
Jesus went away from there, and withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon. And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.” But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once.
As we find throughout this section, there is deep play with bread and consumption and seed. What is corrupting us, Jesus argues, isn’t eating with dirty hands. Instead, it is our dirty words coming out of our dirty hearts, and one of the problems involves us spreading our seed in a dirty way. Behind this is a deep analogy between word and seed: the word is a seed that is planted in the heart, and in time it grows and produces different behaviors. Sexuality is also in view, especially as it relates to family: instead of honoring their Mother and Father, the Pharisees are justifying things like taking the bread from the mouths of your parents to fund the Temple. This, Jesus suggests, is true corruption. It isn’t the dirty hands of the farmers of Galilee that have corrupted us, but the bad faith of Herod’s regime. And because our great theme here is bread, I’ll add that bread, indeed, is gathered and fired seed.
All of this helps us appreciate the rich subtext that Sister Rev. Dr. Amy Richter draws out for us in Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew. She shows how the encounter could reflect a deeply redemptive transmutation of the encounter between Judah (!) and Tamar, in light of the genealogy that has framed all of our reflections so far. When Dr. Richter discusses Enoch, she is drawing in highly popular Second Temple literature that reflects on the sexual transgression that created the Nephilim. That motif was the Hebrew Bible’s way of cutting down the violence and make-up (prostitution and mere appearances) of Babylon’s big men. Man-gods like Gilgamesh, this cycle suggests, weren’t legitimate rulers birthed by gods, but the illegitimate bastards of fallen angels. Here in the lands corrupted by Assyria (which was to Babylon what Rome was to Greece), it would make a great deal of contextual sense for Jesus to shift into the register of Enoch and the Nephilim.
That the next woman named after Tamar in Matthew’s genealogy, Rahab, has some things in common with the Canaanite woman in Matt 15: 21–28 has been noted by scholars, and will be revisited in the section on Rahab below. But Tamar also has significant similarities with the Canaanite woman Jesus encounters in Matthew and may be the woman who influences Matthew’s telling of the encounter. Tamar, in some significant ways, not only shows the reassessment of the Enochic transgression template, but also foreshadows the role that the Canaanite woman plays in Matthew’s Gospel.
What Tamar and her later Matthean counterpart have in common is this: Tamar and the Canaanite woman both meet in a public setting the man they believe can give them what they need; this meeting in a public setting brings with it an association with prostitution; both are praised for their behavior, Tamar for having great righteousness (Gen 38: 26), the Canaanite woman for having great faith (Matt 15: 28); both obtain what they need from the man they encounter: Tamar, children from Judah, the woman, healing for her daughter from Jesus; both are clever in their interaction with the man: Tamar in deceiving Judah to get what was rightfully hers, the Canaanite woman in her theological dialogue with Jesus which convinces him of her faith; and both are concerned about children: Tamar about becoming pregnant, the Canaanite woman about her daughter’s affliction by a demon. Tamar and the Canaanite woman both risk public shame in order to get their needs met; both are praised for their actions. Further, the Canaanite woman in Matthew builds her argument to Jesus around his statement, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matt 15: 26 NRSV), words that have caused much consternation amongst scholars of Matthew.
It is worth examining this statement in detail. In doing so, another connection between Tamar and the Canaanite woman in Matthew becomes apparent. In addition to the notion, offensive for some, that Jesus would insult the Canaanite woman by calling her a dog, there is the issue of how the verbal repartee between Jesus and the Canaanite woman results in his great praise for her faith. How is it that his reference to dogs leads to her reference to the activity of dogs, and results in Jesus’ affirmation of her great faith? What do dogs and Canaanite women have in common? One of the few occurrences of the word “dog” in the Hebrew Bible is in a passage that brings together dogs, and the two words applied to Tamar, as shown above, השׁדק and הנוז. Deuteronomy 23: 18–19 (17–18 MT) states, “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a השׁדק; none of the sons of Israel shall be a שׁדק. You shall not bring the fee of a הנוז or of a male prostitute (NRSV) (בלכ, literally “dog”; κυνὸς in LXX) into the house of the Lord your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are abhorrent to the Lord your God.” The word “dog” in this passage may function as a hook-word (or Stichwort) that links this passage with Matt 15: 26. According to the gezera sheva rule for biblical interpretation, when two texts share a word or words, the texts are “perceived to be in fact similar or related.” The texts sharing the similar word or words “are linked and used to explain, clarify, or amplify one another.” The word gezera refers to “law.” If the same word appears in two passages from the Pentateuch, then the law applying in one should be applied to the other. That Jesus is insulting the woman in his use of the word “dog” seems clear, even if not to those who want to protect Jesus from that problematic speech. But in calling the woman a dog, Jesus may be disparaging her not only as a Gentile, but also as a loose woman, perhaps even as a prostitute. Matthew alone of the evangelists identifies the woman as a Canaanite. As noted above, Canaanites were hated in part because of their practices, including the practices of their תושׁדק and םישׁדק.
By having Jesus call the Canaanite woman a dog, the evangelist may be bringing to mind Deut 23: 18–19, which disparages Canaanite תושׁדק (in Deut 23: 18), הנוז (in Deut 23: 19), and dogs (there a reference to male prostitutes). Given Deut 23: 18–19 as background, Jesus does not intend “to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (NRSV). However, the Canaanite woman, in reference to the same passage from Deuteronomy, can hear in it not only the word “dog,” but also the words השׁדק and הנוז. That is, she hears both of the words applied to Tamar in Genesis 38. When the woman counters, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” (Matt 15: 27 NRSV), she may be recalling Tamar, who despite being identified as the female equivalent to the male prostitute (a “dog” in Deut 23: 18), is vindicated and called “righteous” (Gen 38: 26). Tamar waited on Judah, the man who was supposed to give her what she needed to sustain her. When her “master” did not, she took matters into her own hands, and obtained what he casually “let fall” by the side of the road to Timnah. Tamar, the Canaanite woman’s ancestor in faith, was called both השׁדק and הנוז, no better than a dog, and in Deut 23: 18, the equivalent of a dog. But at the conclusion of the story, Tamar has what she went to Judah for, pregnancy, and Judah’s statement, “She is more righteous than I” (Gen 38: 26).
Jesus has called the Canaanite woman a dog, the equivalent of השׁדק and הנוז. But the Canaanite woman, like Tamar, seeks a righteous cause, the healing of her daughter. In the woman’s response to Jesus, in which she accepts the identification of herself as a dog willing to accept what falls from the master’s table, she may also be claiming identification with Tamar who was called righteous. Jesus’ response, “O woman, great is your faith”. (Ὦ γύναι, μεγάλη σου ἡ πίστις, Matt 15: 28) and granting her desire for her child would be a fitting conclusion to the encounter, even as Judah’s response and Tamar’s giving birth to twins was a fitting conclusion to Tamar’s story. What Tamar and the Canaanite woman have in common, however, highlights the distinction between them: Tamar obtains what she needs by engaging in apparently illicit sexual activity with Judah; the Canaanite woman achieves her goal by engaging in theological discussion with Jesus. The difference is of the utmost importance when discussing the Enochic template, its partial overturning in the stories of the Hebrew women, and its complete redressing in Matthew’s Gospel. The watchers transgress through illicit sexual activity and illicit teaching and it results in disaster. Tamar uses sexual activity and illicit teaching and it results, not in disaster, but in a proclamation of righteousness for Tamar and good for Judah. In Matthew, Jesus is approached by a woman who is associated by the name “Canaanite” and her location in the street, as was the case with Tamar, with illicit sexuality. This woman obtains her goals, and it results in a proclamation of great faith for the woman, healing for the daughter, and the expansion of Jesus’ ministry beyond the borders of Israel. However, and importantly, the woman, although associated with sexual availability, does not use sexual activity to get what she needs. She uses affirmation of faith and theological discussion. Corley writes, “the association of the woman with harlotry allows her to be easily compared to the πόρνει who also ‘believe’ and enter the messianic kingdom before the Pharisees (Matt 21: 31–32).” However, I think the Canaanite woman who believes, and uses words, not sexuality, to approach Jesus, also may be compared to those who “have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19: 12 NRSV). She does not use the sexuality or sexual impropriety that is naturally associated with her as a Canaanite woman to approach Jesus. Sexuality has nothing to do with her faithfulness. Regardless of her (unknown) marital status (she has a daughter, but we do not know if she has a husband), her acting in a way that is surprising for a Canaanite woman meeting Jesus in the street (i.e., with no sexual advances) demonstrates her acceptance of Jesus’ teaching. There is no sexual activity in her pursuit of the wholeness of the kingdom. The story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s Gospel shows the third movement of the trajectory from transgression to redemption of transgression that this book demonstrates. The first movement is the transgression itself, the watchers’ fall and illicit pedagogy in the Enochic template. The second movement is the partial redemption — the foreshadowing of redemption — of transgression in the story of Tamar, in which her transgression — use of illicit pedagogy and association with elements found in the Enochic template — results, not in tragedy, but in righteousness and moving the story of salvation forward. The third movement, which will be discussed in more detail in the next chapter, is the full redemption of transgression as Matthew shows it in the life and ministry of Jesus.
In the culture of Jesus, as in our own, sex is often discussed indirectly and by implication. Having drawn out the strong sexual overtones of the encounter, I will note again their socio-political significance in terms of generation, nation, and son or seed. Also notice that Jesus says it is not good to give the children’s bread (ἄρτος) to “dogs”. Although sometimes translated as food, the word is more specifically bread. It is the same word used in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us today our daily bread.” Recall as well that Jesus has just been talking about food (what goes into the body), and emphasizing that the real issue is what goes out of the body: our words, but also in the same discussion, the issue of sexual seed. In this context, it is entirely appropriate to note that “the children’s bread” can also, then, be the seed that was meant to produce children. Was it right to give Judah’s seed to the “dog” Tamar? Well, Judah’s own child (Onan) had refused to give Tamar the family’s seed, because he wanted to hoard the inheritance. As a result, Onan’s line was struck down.
Consider as well that you literally grow children by feeding them bread, and hoarding and neglect cause them to fail to thrive. Because Judah’s children failed to give Tamar the seed that was her due, she is forced into an unpleasant and difficult survival strategy: she must trick her father-in-law into giving her what should have been his children’s seed. Jesus redeems this story arc by entering into it in the role of Judah, the man from the House of Bread (himself the Son of Israel). He provides her an opportunity to exercise agency in a way that allows her to grasp what is rightfully hers. What is grasped from this fecund eunuch, however, is his Father’s very bread of life: the true words that break the power of the Edomite power structure that is gobbling up everyone’s seed like Esau gobbled the porridge, spoiling everyone’s birthright. So their intercourse is entirely verbal, purely Platonic. And of course this happens just as Jesus is on his way to Israel, to limping Jacob, to bring them seed from the House of Bread. So the Son of Judah finishes his sojourn in Caanan and then makes his way east, moving back through time in a redemptive movement of reconciliation, to the House of Jacob.
Also notice how precisely Jesus makes use of silence and subtle contrast here. When the Canaanite woman approaches, he is silent. In a pattern that is reflected throughout the Hebrew Bible, sometimes God is silent, and often men rush into this silence with their own invalid inferences and perverse preferences. What do the disciples take the silence to mean? They get tired of the Canaanite woman’s cries, much like the gods of the Enuma Elish get annoyed by human noise. So they beg Jesus to drive her off, just as Joshua (the very namesake of Jesus) was told to drive off the Canaanites. The response of Jesus appears, on its face, to confirm the disciples’s out-group prejudice and so it unites him with them: he notes that he has just been sent to the lost sheep in the house of Israel, where he will feed the sheep who have wandered onto our land. As with the Canaanite woman, he will feed them instead of driving them off. In this, we might hear that his entire mission was merely to unite Israel and Judah, but we might also hear something more limited: perhaps he is saying that he is just on his way to Israel at the moment.
More than what we might hear, there is also what we see: Jesus is not driving her away, as requested. Instead, he is opening the door to discourse, just as he also does with the Pharisees. However, they routinely turn to defensive power games (what Jürgen Habermas calls the steering media of money and power) instead of good faith engagement. In contrast, this woman walks right through the door with her own discursive response. She answers Jesus according to his apparent folly, just as Jesus turns out to have been answering his disciples according to their real folly. In all of this discourse, everyone becomes like everyone: a new family is begun, discursively rather than sexually. We might put the Caananite’s answer this way: even the dog gets Judah’s seed, and she gets it straight from Judah instead of from his wicked and greedy children who won’t share their bread. And indeed she is correct. Here is someone who knows of Tamar, the ancestor of Jesus, whether she knows the story itself or not. She understands just what this faith is after all! It is the faith of a God who abides with the poor and marginalized against their oppressors, even when (as with Jacob, who is limping Israel) the means by which the bottom rises are tricky to those on top.
(As Jacob and Esau pull more squarely into view, I would like to indulge in a substantial aside. I think we have grounds to see Paul as a critic of the Herodian dynasty when he sights Malachi’s Second Temple prophecy in Romans 9, noting that God loved Jacob but hated Esau. A fuller excurses on that can be found here. It is especially interesting to consider this possibility in light of the political situation. With Esau’s seed on the throne of David on the eve of the Temple’s destruction, Paul equates captive Jerusalem, under Rome, with Esau. The dynastic thrust of Paul’s arguments would have carried real rhetorical force in their original context precisely because of the political situation on the ground. This hasn’t always been noticed by readers attempting to reconstruct the thought world that the Romans tried to obliterate.)
Matthew 14–20 can be read as a long string of similar diamonds, hidden in the roughness of simple stories. Their beauty emerges through the implicit play of reference, social context, and text. The message is consistent, even as it is elaborated through encounter after encounter after encounter. And the broad sweep is this:
We are approaching the great confrontation. The Kingly, Legal and Prophetic governance of Israel has been mustered, and now this force is going back up to meet the corrupted and corrupting Temple in the highlands of Judah. Jesus has built a mass movement through organized canvassing, public speaking, healing and feeding, and all without lifting metal coins to bribe or metal swords to coerce. The central symbol that draws together the entire complex is as simple as it is comprehensive in its communicative power: bread. And so we are prepared for Passover, the feast of unleavened bread when the heavenly seed will fall to the people wandering in the desert. And it will die. And it will yield its rich harvest of righteousness. That is to say, we prepare for the ingathering of the seeds of every nation, as promised to Abraham, who began our genealogy. As we head back up to Jerusalem, singing songs of ascent and lament, we might be reminded that the Temple itself was built on a threshing floor, the place where wheat was set so that mountain winds could blow away the waste. The wheat has now been gathered. To the threshing floor we go.
With Passover upon us, one other detail needs to be noted: this section closes with Jesus talking about the bitter cup that he will soon drink. This motif frames and carries us through the conclusion of Matthew. When we get to Matthew 26 we will talk more about the bitter cup of death on a cross, which becomes the fourth and final cup of Passover as well. As with the other references to the elevation of the Son of Man, this all articulates the inaugurated eschatological timing that Jesus has in view, which is informed by the inaugurated eschatology of Daniel 7. The Son of Man does indeed come to his throne as his aion shortly ends. In a similar way, his warnings are vindicated when the nation’s aion ends in a generation. Following the Danielic model, though, this great unveiling is the breaking of Roman power, after which the other beasts explicitly still persist for a time. Matthew explains that in this interval, the Son of Man proceeds to set the other nations under his feet in the same way that he set Rome under his feet, judging them by the same cruciform standard of his own elevation. By the reconciling blood of this fourth bitter cup, Jesus is elevated and so breaks the power of the fourth Danielic beast. And in a literary sense, the fourth Passover cup of Matthew 20 and 26 stitch together our patches of 14–20, 21–25 and 26–28.
Deuteronomy of Jesus (Matthew 21–25?)
And so we arrive at Palm Sunday. I happen to be writing this the day after Palm Sunday, 2022, and authoritarianism is once again on the march here and abroad. Around the same time that Jesus marched into Jerusalem, Pilate would have marched into the city as well. His forces, bought with Edomite tribute, were prepared to suppress the liberatory demands that could so easily arise on Passover, the feast of national liberation. The hour is precisely correct for Jesus to begin the final confrontation between Empire and the Messianic anti-Empire. On one side we have Rome, its Edomite quislings and its Kirilian priesthood, bought at the price of some buildings and patronage. And that patronage, like those grand buildings, were bought at the price of the starving peasants from the bread basket’s open plains. Am I talking about Galilee or am I talking about Ukraine, and the anti-Archbishop Kiril in Russia? I am talking about the original, in Galilee, and I am talking about its many copies in history: every productive region crushed under an illegitimate system of deception and control. The pattern of oppressive extraction settling in over resource-rich areas is familiar enough to have a common name in the political science literature: the resource curse. In a similar way, the pattern by which religious leaders are cheaply bought by authoritarian leaders is also familiar. Archbishop Kiril is serving Putin and enjoying the splendor of the Russian Cathedral of the Armed Forces, much as the Vatican reveled in the grand repairs that Mussolini financed, even as IL DUCE graciously allowed his children to be baptized by the Catholic Church. (Notice the inversion of authority here: the church becomes the tail, Empire the head.) Soon, priests were literally melting down crosses to help Italy’s colonial slaughter in the breadbaskets of Ethiopia. I bring in the contemporary situation for a lot of reasons, but one of them is this: the question of whether Matthew’s author saw Christianity superseding Judaism is an important and fraught question here. After Auschwitz I think that we desperately and urgently need to focus on the way in which the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is always already superseding Christendom. Another reason to draw these connections is that in Matthew’s Gospel, the lifetime of the Kingdom of Judah comes to serve as the original, the model, the ideal type, the measure, the object lesson, for us until history is done. Matthew trains us to respond appropriately to the fall of our own nations and temples, as they do indeed fall under the weight of our own cruelty. Today we have plenty of planks to remove; for Christians this must primarily be about me and you, not the supposedly wicked Jew (or other outsider) who we have so often been eager to slander.
And now let’s go up through the systems in order to recapitulate the withdrawal of Rome’s dominions that Jesus has been effecting. The prophetic has, throughout Matthew, been transformed and taken up in the legitimation of the Davidic Kingdom. Here on Palm Sunday the King rides in on the words of Zechariah 9 and on a small agrarian colt (a son even), sharply contrasted with the war horses of Pilate. Jesus is hailed as a prophet here, but he is behaving as King: his embrace of enemy love has broken the boundary between symbolic demonstration, warning, and governance. How has he done this? By propounding a non-violent covenant within the land, standing on a mountain in the very land that Moses couldn’t enter because he struck the stone (!) when he had been commanded to speak instead. Soon, Jesus will speak of himself as the Temple’s cornerstone, struck instead of spoken to. Here we have the roots of the Christian notion that there is a third divine temple rebuilt in Christ, a heavenly Temple that we are built into through faithfulness to the Covenant on the Mount.  The deep Mosaic irony that will be unveiled shortly is this: while the generation of Moses could not enter the land, this generation will be compelled by Rome to leave the land, just as Moses warns in the end (of Deuteronomy). One of the more confusing aspects of the debate about Christian supersessionism involves precisely this point. The difficult thing that needs to be said is this: this expulsion from the land is, in no way whatsoever, a critique or supersession of the Mosaic covenant. It is, precisely, the Mosaic law. At any rate, Jesus would have presumably known of previous revolts of Galilean peasants, and so he would have known how murderously Pilate had slaughtered a protest much like his in the Temple. Luke 13:1 refers to this event, noting that Pilate had mingled the peasants’ blood with the Temple’s sacrifices. The means by which Jesus goes beyond the horrors and tragedies of all nation-states is this: he identifies with those who suffer in their rise and fall, and he brings assurance of their ultimate victory over the oppressors without and the oppressors within.
So is Jesus flinging himself against the wheel of history in some futile and naive gesture, thinking that he will stop it by virtue of a single death? Does Matthew’s Jesus ever indicate that his death and resurrection will bring the end of normal history and the dawn of a new age in which everyone is suddenly made of starstuff and ideal forms, instead of rotting earthly stuff? I think that is unbelievably far from the best reading of Matthew. Although the broader philosohical context does bear deep attention and reflection, I’m not at all convinced that philosophy’s idealist ferment can be reduced to something so crude. And I think that the suggestion that Jesus was therefore just a naive idealist (in all the relevant senses) is as politically naive as it imagines itself to be politically sophisticated. The dismissal of the long range thinking at work here, in Matthew, reflects the blinkered perspective of a Herod or a Belshazzar. They imagined that politics was a matter of simply achieving momentary political control, and then stringing those glimmering moments along indefinitely. That’s not at all how things work in reality, and history presents us with the wreckage of one failed dynasty after another, after another, after another, to prove it. Jesus clearly understood how to move us from flesh and sword to Spirit and Word, but his resurrection appearances across the Gospels seemed rather disappointing if they were mainly going for showy starry glowing.
In contrast, Matthew indicates at many points that its Jesus was building to last. For anyone with any political awareness at all, the view of Jesus as a naive end-times prophet betrays a complete blindness to the profound sophistication of Matthew as both ancient and contemporary political theory. Far from the productions of countless doomsday cults, Matthew expresses something in ancient terms that we have yet to really get our heads around, even as its efficacy has been demonstrated repeatedly for millennia now, and even as Erika Chenoweth is helping political science get a clue. Jesus has not only narratively recaptured the rest of the governance structures within Israel, he has also recaptured nations, sonship, generations and the process of generation itself.
At his back as Jesus enters Jerusalem is Abraham and all of his seed, the structure of covenant faithfulness at the root of governance itself. And out of that seed he has recruited the children of Isaac, the child of laughter whose apparent sacrifice abolished human sacrifice. Indeed, it is precisely because human sacrifice is such a scandal that the behavior of Rome and Esau will be a shock, a death to be mourned for all generations and in all nations. As we arrive at Matthew 21, Jesus has also just recruited Jacob to the North. The House of Jacob is is behind him as he enters Jerusalem to meet Esau, the Edomite usurper who is sitting on David’s throne, just beneath the boot of Rome.
Matthew’s Jesus knows that Herod-Esau will not willingly play the part of reconciling brother as he does in Genesis; nonetheless, the Jesus of this Genesis has a plan for that as well. An even more clever serpent than Jacob, Jesus is armed with the book of Daniel coiled beside the road like a serpent. It will knock Pilate and his clients from their high horses. And although he is cleverer than Jacob, Jesus is also more innocent: his designs are hidden in plain sight, as he has repeatedly warned his disciples of his death. They don’t understand his plan, even though he tells it to them repeatedly, much as we today still fail to understand his strategy, even though we have been repeating it for millennia. Importantly, Jesus will not kill a single person, not even himself; Pilate will do the killing for his Kirilian priesthood. And though Leviathan is about to swallow our Jonah, Jesus will have its violence on his hook through olam and even unto the olam of olam’s. And so the summing up of the generations and nations doesn’t stop there. Yes, the lamb slain before the foundation of the world has always been the roaring Lion of Judah.
Arriving in Judah, the Son of David has even ventured to Canaan and redeemed the pagans like Tamar in his line. In empowering Canaanite agency and cleverness he is truly Tamar’s child, and more innocent still. In other words, the Kingdom of the Son of Man has arrived and it has already built a multi-national coalition and it has already reclaimed three of the four ‘branches of government.’ At his back is a great cloud of witnesses, both the living crowds that we can see and their countless ancestors, already past but not past yet. The confrontation between Judah, in Jesus, and Edom, in Herod, is hardly a fair political fight at this point. Poor Herod with his meager generations. Mighty Jesus with his generation of generations, his lifetimes of lifetimes, his nation of nations, riding into Jerusalem covered in the treasures of heaven. The Empire never sees what is coming, cloaked as Jesus is in these glorious rough-cut diamonds, dazzling everyone who can see farther than the immediate moment, always and already apparent to all who can see deeper than skin.
And so Jesus finally arrives and turns the tables in the Temple. His complaint is precisely about all the metal being shuffled around there. The Temple is meant to be a place that fulfills the Abrahamic covenant that Jesus wields instead of a sword: a house of prayer for all nations, all of those seeds and generations behind and before him. Here he also incites the slander that will be used to falsely indict him in Matthew 26. The claim will be that this prophet-king said he would destroy the Temple. The truth is that he warned of its destruction, identified hiimself with it utterly, and began its rebuilding in him. So he says (or sings?) that he is himself the stone that the builders rejected, and so he will be the cornerstone of the new bodily Temple. And with that, I like to think that Psalm 118 was ringing in everyone’s ears, as our songs ring in ours. The whole song, plausibly a Passover song, is worth considering, including with the repeated refrains that God’s steadfast and faithful loving kindness will endure lᵉ’olām:
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!
Let Israel say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
Let the house of Aaron say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
Let those who fear the Lord say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
Out of my distress I called on the Lord;
the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.
With the Lord on my side I do not fear.
What can mortals do to me?
The Lord is on my side to help me;
I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to put confidence in mortals.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to put confidence in princes.
All nations surrounded me;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
They surrounded me like bees;
like a fire of thorns;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
but the Lord helped me.
The Lord is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the Lord.
The Lord has punished me severely,
but he did not give me over to death.
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
I would suggest that it is the broader context of the song that lends lᵉ’olām its fullness here. The phrase lᵉ’olām can, as we’ve seen, also pointedly refer to the imminent end of Belshazzar’s life. The song fittingly plays with the limits of life and death even as it affirms a love more enduring than Belshazzar’s dynasty. In his use of the song, Jesus plays with the notion of Temple building most acutely and directly: those behind the building of the Temple will reject the cornerstone. Builders like that build things that will fall. As elsewhere, when Jesus speaks of his death and resurrection, notice that there is a progressive aspect in view. For him to be the cornerstone of the Temple is to suggest that he is the beginning of a process. Temple-building, like nation building, is an intergenerational process.
The process of Jesus offering discursive bids to the Pharisees is completed with Matthew 22:41–46. We’ll do a longer excursus on it because it represents the grandest gesture with respect to TIME, EXTENDED FAMILY and GOVERNMENT that we find in Matthew’s Gospel. It gestures implicitly, but quite clearly, toward the aidios, the truly timeless and eternal. Here, as elsewhere, Jesus is offering an invitation to discourse. Here, as elsewhere, the Pharisees are unwilling to go where the Canaanite woman did.
While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
“The son of David,” they replied.
He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.’”
If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Jesus has presented a conundrum: how can the Son of David be from a later generation than David, if David himself calls the Messianic Son of David his Lord? Jesus is not, here, simply offering a clever riddle that cannot be answered. Instead, the immediate answer is this: the Messianic Son of David must also be from a previous generation than David. We might well note, with the start of Matthew’s geneology, that he may be calling himself a Son of Abraham here. And indeed, as in the extension of his mission to the Caananite woman, there is a scope to the claim of Jesus that goes beyond merely governing Israel. But the Davidic King was also always meant to bring the treasures of the gentiles into Israel as well. Still, we will also see in Matthew 26 that Jesus sees himself as the Son of Man (Adamic and Danielic), and even the Son of God (imperial and divine.) And so we can see how Matthew’s Jesus is gesturing toward the possibility that he is Adonai himself, with the word Adonai used as a way of implying, but not pronouncing, the sacred name of YHWH.
The implication is as clear as it is unspeakable, and the scope of what Matthew is claiming in this Book of Genesis emerges, monumental, at the edges of our field of view. Only hinted at briefly in the book’s title phrase, Genesis of Jesus, the cosmological has broken into the discussion. Following the pattern of the Timaeus, the text can now descend from the aidios to the aion (the lifetime of Jesus as the lifetime of the cosmos, meaning some ordered system). The order that is centered here is the social order. So in Matthew 23 and 24 we move seamlessly into the lifetime of the nation of Israel, who is also the son of God, and then from there to the sons’ aionios copies (generations and nations). Such a procession of temporal concepts is initiated precisely here, as our minds are brought to the ultimate limit of olamic language, the timeless source of time, the aidios. But of course the procession proceeds instead of staying here. For less than a moment we are suspended in the dizzying nothingness at the beginning of Genesis. There is Elohim, the Speaker(s) in whose image all humanity, male and female, are made. There is the Holy Ruach hovering over the chaos-water as She prepares to give birth (give genesis), generating light and beings and time. (And as John will suggest in his own Genesis, there is Jesus as the Word that will proceed from the Father and be carried in the Spirit, who is the Holy Breath that is the power of the Word, the Tongues of Fire that project the intelligible Word.) It is therefore utterly fitting that it is by this Ruach from before the lifetime of the cosmos that David spoke of the Genesis and Generation of Jesus. Here is Matthew’s high Christology. It is expressed in the same restrained, implicit, beautiful, and olamic way that such things are spoken of throughout this Gospel. There is a deep propriety and profundity to this mode of implication, which leaves the diamonds uncut, the wisdom to be gleaned by those who will gather. John’s Gospel will circumcise the diamonds spiritually, in the more Greek mode of Greco-Hebrew explication, but Matthew proceeds in the more Hebraic mode of Greco-Hebrew explication. Both point in the same direction, although Matthew artfully invites us to perform the conceptual cutting ourselves.
Notice that here, too, the progressive aspect of the inaugurated King’s continuing work is present. He will soon sit there in judgment at God’s right hand, the resurrection effected through the crucifix, and from there he will continue to reign until he has conquered all of his enemies (in the same way he conquered the Temple and the rest, through solidaristic identification). The inauguration of a Kingdom is not its end, but its beginning, and the dream that Jesus articulates is one that still animates me and countless others today: the dream of an anti-Empire that overcomes oppression by cutting it off from our hearts and our lives. The work of inauguration inaugurates, rather than concludes. After he is enthroned, as with an Empire, the anti-Empire aims to proceed to the ends of the world. But it proceeds precisely by negating the imperial use of violence and sex … and oddly enough, in the gyre of the generations it turns out that it works better that way.
But here in Matthew the inauguration has not yet happened. It still requires one more harrowing task. Jesus must take up the Passover work of the Temple itself, upheaving and transforming the slaying of Egypt’s firstborn sons through his own death. This prophetic death prefigures and joins in suffering solidarity with the son of God’s death (that is to say, beloved Israel’s death) at Roman hands as well. As with Paul in Romans 9–11, a hope for reconciliation with Esau remains in view, even as Esau (Herod’s government) refuses to play out the reconciling script of Genesis as Israel limps to his camp bearing all these gifts. Despite Esau’s betrayal of himself, this time, the pattern of the narrative in Genesis persists: it’s just that it lies on the far side of this death and its copies in history.
When I climb the Mount of Olives, I’ll survey Matthew 23 to 25 as its own literary sub-unit which contains Matthew 24–25, seen as its own literary whole. Still, as throughout Matthew, each whole is intimately connected to what follows, and we will see how the question raised in Matthew 24 carries us through to the end of Matthew 28. Ultimately, this allows us to unite the entire end of Matthew in this fifth “book” of teaching, with Jesus completing his answer the disciples’ question about the end of the age through his own death and resurrection. We will notice how Matthew 24–25 moves us from aion to the aionios, following the intro of Matthew 23, in just the same way that the Timaeus proceeds. It then brings us back to “aion” in the final words of the Gospel at the conclusion of Matthew 28. The aidios is not explicitly present there or anywhere; we saw what there was to see of its unseeable timelessness already in the silence of Matthew 22:46.
(And here I’ll pause for a methodological reminder and note, since we are in the realm of rabbit holes now. Of course scholars debate whether Jesus was making a divinity claim here or not. Of course we can have long and even occasionally fascinating arguments about the history behind this text. Recall that my method here involves an effort to offer a powerfully consilient reading of the text as a whole, in its original social and political context, especially in light of the texts the book directly cites. My view is that the total reading I offer has a capacity to elegantly account for everything we’re encountering in the text in its historical context, and my confident tone, at points like this, is about conveying that particular sensation: the joy of discovering the text. I’m especially open to other readings that are capable of drawing out a similar level of cogency and coherence from the whole document. Now is it possible that Matthew became revered for its power and wisdom in spite of the fact that it is actually an incoherent mishmash, perhaps a clumsy attempt to articulate a theology of salvation by grace alone? Or maybe it is just a random pastiche of whatever Matthew could find laying around? If those sorts of priors are granted, then we have a difference in goals and method. We can respectfully disagree at a methodological level, although I do suspect the historical credibility of such methods; I doubt their capacity to explain the historical emergence, to prominence, of the text we have. I should also clarify that while my mode of reading should, I think, contribute to efforts to reconstruct and understand the historical Jesus, this is not what I am directly doing here. In many ways, consilient reading is a more humble attempt to provide something that may be of some use to some on that other battleground. In its humility, though, it does suggest a serious critique of a lot of that literature. Compared to efforts like this, efforts to actually read and comprehend the text, a lot of that ‘historical’ work is gummed up with arguments that aren’t even trying to read the texts that they try to turn into evidence. For those who read for comprehension, plenty of arguments bear an unflattering resemblance to conspiracy theorists glancing at an abstract in a journal on global climate science, ripping a sentence or two out of context, and using it to prove how biased these ‘climate scientists’ are. The moral of this story is that you can’t convincingly turn dense and sophisticated texts into data for your thesis quite so easily without making a fool of yourself in front of actual readers. I would suggest that reading well is, in fact, an important first step in the effort of historical reconstruction. As a result, there’s plenty of junk out there that claims to deliver the historical Jesus to you, but which hasn’t even seriously stepped onto the path that might, perhaps, lead us there in the fullness of time. Behind this humility of method, and the humility of Matthew’s method, there is also a grand swipe at the folly of the clever who build their castles on sand. Having watched the edifice of a couple of quests for the historical Jesus fall, it is time to begin again with the basic task of trying to read, recognizing how difficult even that is.)
Regarding Matthew 24–25 the basic thesis is this: the Olivet Discourse works beautifully when it is read in the context of the inaugurated eschatological patterns that surround it and fill it. This becomes especially coherent and consilient as a reading, to the point of feeling almost inescapable to me, with the help of the conceptual framework and outline articulated here. On this reading, Matthew’s Gospel coheres powerfully and does not present Jesus as a prophet who makes predictions that fail. Instead, Matthew’s Jesus is a profound, comprehensive, farsighted and transformative political thinker who accurately predicts the end of the son of God’s aion. On this reading, what ends and begins on this fateful Passover is not the aion of the entire cosmos. We do not see Jesus promising to end all processes of material decay, or to slay all four beasts. Rather, his non-coercive government issues an enduring invitation to deepening covenant faithfulness, with its rewards and consequences. In the new covenant that Jesus articulates in Matthew 5–7, the reward is that whatever is built on his teachings (such as a Temple or nation) will last because it is built on rock, and whatever is not built on them will collapse in time, when the storms of history inevitably buffet them. Even the failure of Christians to be faithful, with all of the evils and collapses that repeatedly result, can nonetheless become their own invitation to repent and engage in the work of reconciliation. As with any system exerting selective pressure, this system moves us (cooperative or not) to its desired ends. What are those ends? A turning from this cruel futility, from hoarding and killing and slandering, and into a deepening covenant faith.
I think that it is warranted to read the text in this way, and to see Matthew 23–25 as the prototypical outworking of the aion of the Son of God. His aion is, throughout Matthew, paralleled to the aion of the nation, especially as it is summed up in the Temple. As such, the end of his aion is a prophetic warning about the end of the nation’s aion, and his own witness is copied as his prophetic imitators similarly witness against unjust governments and nations for all the time that remains. What is the apocalypse of Matthew, then? What does it reveal? It reveals the prototypical form of national life, and the aionic (lifetimeish) copying that structures history itself. Even more than that, I’ll argue that it is warranted to hold that the covenant articulated in Matthew 5–7 reflects the deep structure and logic of the cosmos, as that structure is embedded in our own individual and group psychology. Holding the personal and national aion properly in view, we are then able to extend these claims to cosmic scale, and then beyond all scale into the aidios itself. But to do that, we must truly center this rigorous mercy in our way of life, with all of the power and celebration and vulnerability and mourning that it brings. If we are to extend Matthew 24–25 to its full implicit potential, we must understand what it is explicating in the first place.
I should also admit that I think it is, in fact, true that we can build things that really last insofar as we build on the Messiah’s covenant promises. Embarrassing, I know, and of course no worldly man should take fools like Jesus and me seriously. I’ll grant that fools like us have never accomplished anything truly notable, nothing truly enduring like the great works of savvy operators like Herod and Pilate. You’re right. What dolts we are. Move along, there’s nothing to see here. But more of that in time. The end (of Matthew, at least) draws near.
Matthew 26–28: The inauguration, a coda to the Deuteronomy of Jesus
In these final chapters we are shown the death and resurrection of the Messiah, understood in terms of the Passover meal of the Last Supper. That meal is framed by the betrayals of Judas and Peter. Even Peter, the First of the disciples, disowns Jesus just as Jesus predicts. So at least this Passover, Peter doesn’t drink the bitter cup with Jesus. The Son of Man is betrayed, first to last. Can any of this be forgiven? Yes, all of it. Sins against the Son of Man are all forgivable, although even for Peter that process of repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation truly stings. It is a strange and exquisite pain that the Son of God mobilizes to police the borders of his universal domain: his power is the compunction of conscience in response to the word understood. Even after the death of Judas, the blood money paid for his betrayal ends up being used to buy a burial place for foreigners in the land of Judah. Through the power of compunction at his own death, Jesus turns YHWH’s covenants, including the Mosaic covenant, back toward the justice, mercy, and inclusion that they were always pointing toward. In destroying him, his opponents begin the painful work of destroying the Slanderer within themselves. The overarching message is that Jesus and his steadfast faithfulness and lovingkindness endure, even beyond the limit of what is seen.
The Messianic time of inaugurated eschatology is also rather clearly and directly articulated around the motif of the fourth cup of Passover. At the Passover feast, four cups of wine are traditionally consumed. Contextually (as Craig Keener has noted) Jesus apparently stops after the third cup and this is when he says: “I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” Here is the relevant section, Matthew 26:17–29 (NRSV):
On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.
When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
The hymn here would have presumably been something from the Hallel, Psalms 113–118. So musically, too, the fourth cup of Passover is being symbolically bound up with the cleansing of the Temple. Perhaps Jesus and his disciples now sang together the very line that Jesus sang alone when he cleansed the Temple: the stone that the builders rejected … but then we hear a record scratch. On his way to becoming the corner stone, once again he will sing alone.
And so we’re drawn back to the earlier discussion in Matthew 20 about the cup that Jesus would drink. There, the point is the same one that is made on Maundy Thursday, the day when Christians commemorate the Lord’s Supper: the greatest is the least. The highest service in the Kingdom is to lay down your life for your friends, not to be exalted in the way that the nations exalt oppressors. Instead, one is raised up precisely in casting down special privilege, and violence, and the domineering leadership styles that enable them. This is why the Son of Man must die instead of kill. This is why he scatters his word-seed prodigally among the nations, instead of hoarding wealth and power. If he did what a normal king did, he would just be a fifth Danielic beast. Instead, in himself and in whoever is brought into him, he ends those processes. What he will accomplish with his elevation to the right hand of God is clearly articulated in Daniel 7: he will break the fourth beast’s power when it is blasted with the flames of judgment, but the other beasts will be allowed to continue for a time. Here as well, the language of Jesus and the background texts he is drawing on do not indicate any kind of end of history, or the gross conversion of earthly matter to starstuff. Instead, the texts speak of a decisive judgment on the fourth beast. Any competent and minimally attentive reader looking at the texts that are explicitly being referenced, can see this with ease. Matthew adds that he will issue this judgment on the fourth beast (the Greco-Roman Empire) in a gesture that is seamlessly united with the fourth cup of Passover: his death and resurrection.
This becomes especially clear as the motif of the fourth cup is then taken up at Gethsemane. After his three cups of wine and his warning of the three betrayals by Peter, Jesus then mourns the fourth cup three times at Gethsemane. As he does, he repeatedly rebukes his disciples for failing to keep watch. (Although perhaps their sleepiness is understandable, especially if they tucked into all four cups of wine at Passover.) Here, the fourth cup that Jesus will drink as he comes into his Father’s Kingdom is explicitly revealed to be his bloody death on a cross. And in the segment that follows, the non-violent character of his anti-Empire is centered, just as the egalitarian character of it is centered by the previous discussion of the cup. To sit at the right hand of God, that Danielic phrase, means precisely to die and drink this cup. So of course, when he is finally bound under oath at trial and ordered to speak, Jesus explains his imminent inauguration on the cross. From now on (more progressive language, explaining the start of a process), Caiphas the High Priest will see the Son of Man elevated to his throne of judgment, coming on the clouds of heaven from Daniel 7. Matthew could hardly be more on the nose. The defeat of Rome is at hand, on the cross.
But snap back to Gethsemane with us, as we pull up to the passage. For now his disciples sleep but do not rest. Their rest will come in time when they, too, take that same fourth cup and join Jesus in his heavenly reign. That is to say, when they also give their lives as martyrs, moving from this aion to the next.
The Fourth Cup Revealed
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”
Violent Conquest Willingly and Definitively Renounced, in Favor of Discourse
While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.
From now on they will see the Son of Man Seated at the right hand of God
Then those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gathered. And Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and going inside he sat with the guards to see the end. Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.’” And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?”
The text is about as explicit as it can be about its sense of time, and what the fulfillment of Daniel means to the Matthean community. Jesus takes the fourth cup of Passover on the cross itself, and this is why Caiphas will see him from that eschatological vantage point ‘from now on.’ It is precisely in his confrontation with Rome, to whom Caiphas turns him over, that Jesus receives the resurrection power that burns away the “legitimating” coercion of Rome with fire blasting from his throne.
The really surprising thing here is that there are any Biblical scholars who fail to understand the basic subversion of normal political power that Matthew’s Jesus deploys, in such a thorough way throughout the Gospel. It is equally astonishing that some fail to pay even the most basic level of attention to the surface of the texts in play as they relate to each other around these themes. Jesus meets violence with the power of enemy love, and establishes the most enduring (but non-violent) government in the world. He meets the elitism and fragility of dynastic rule with a brilliant solution to both the problem of fragility and the problem of elitism: he adopts ludicrous numbers of people into the Davidic dynastic through an extremely simple ceremony, baptism. By now this has expanded to become a 2 billion person dynasty so massive that, perhaps, it really will never be extinguished. He accomplishes all of this by moving from fleshy modes of action, which are more restricted, into breathy (or spiritual) modes of action, which are far more efficient. That is to say, he moves Sonship from biological and military reproduction into social and discursive reproduction, carrying us from the politics of filiation to the politics of affiliation (to borrow from Edward Said). It is the most impactful socio-political idea and implementation that anyone has ever effected. Truly, this man is the Son of Man.
Then the Son of Man is denied by Peter, delivered to Pilate, and then Barabbas is released instead of him. As a well-known criminal (and elsewhere a brigand) it is quite possible that Barabbas is a violent revolutionary, not the non-violent kind that Jesus is. While we might view Matthew’s Pilate in a sympathetic light here, it is worth considering that he may have understood what the choice of Barabbas represented: the futile revolts that would ultimately issue in the catastrophes of 70 and then 132. Or more precisely, these events were catastrophes for the people of the land, but also a costly waste for Rome. And so Pilate hollowly washes his hands of the matter, even as he is about to bloody them by implementing the torture and killing of Jesus. By setting the prototypical pattern of this sort of bad faith hand-washing, Pilate becomes every boss throughout history who cloaks his decisions behind the illusion that he had no choice: “I’m sorry, but we have to fire/kill you, it’s not up to me.” Jesus stands as the starkest contrast to this kind of abdication of agency: with essentially no material resources at his disposal, he has chosen to hold everything, while Pilate can’t even acknowledge the power that he so transparently wields. Still, Pilate’s feeble protest speaks to a truth. Rome would have preferred to do without so much genocide if it had been able to find a cheaper way forward. Completely slaughtering a people really makes for some tiring days out in the fields of blood, and future revenue forecasts do go down for a while.
Pilate, it turns out, is the one truly making a mockery of himself. But appearances are deceiving. Visibly mocked and crucified, Jesus remains identified with the Temple and the people of the land who will suffer so much in the end (of the Kingdom of Judah).
So we arrive at the Crucifixion. Jesus is sarcastically proclaimed King as he demonstrates his complete faithfulness to the new covenant propounded in Matthew 5–7. The sun itself is darkened in the middle of the day, the lights of the sky are thrown down. He begins to cry or sing Psalm 22, and people wonder if he is calling the prophet Elijah. So here in the crucifixion we see all of the governmental legitimacy that Jesus has gathered to himself deployed in the confrontation of Temple and co-opted Priesthood with Rome. Who is confronting who, exactly? In every heart, Kingdom is confronting Empire, winning ultimately, but only in tiny patches at first. And then his last breath leaves his torn body: he gives up his spirit. And his complete identification with the Temple and the people persist even here: the curtain is torn on the Temple as the Holy Breath is expired from it as well. His cleansing conquest of the Temple, like his victorious battle with Rome are complete in the moment of his elevation there on the cross. The Temple is retaken. Importantly, Rome’s later destruction of the Temple is not Jesus (now as Rome) riding in to crush it. In his crucifixion, Jesus has already overcome Rome and death themselves; from here, it is only a matter of others imitating his mode of victory in what will, henceforth, explicitly constitute history.
And with that, there is the resurrection of many righteous dead, the miraculous resurrection of Jesus heralded by a gleaming angel, and the Great Commission. The final word of Matthew’s Gospel bears close reflection. We will end our excursus (or excrusis) as we began, with an unpacking of the meaning of aion.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the aion.
What lifetime is he talking about? Well, he will be with us to the end of his own new lifetime: we understand this to be his endless resurrection life because now we see that he is, indeed, the LORD, the sign that aphonically indicates the silent name of YHWH. He will be with us forever because he has revealed his merciful aion to be one that even Roman humiliation and death, and even the brother-sacrificing betrayal by those closest to him that could destroy a psyche in Ben-hinnom, cannot end. And therefore he will be with us to the end of our own aions that are copies of his: he is with us until (and through) that moment when we all, too, will drink the fourth cup of Passover. And he will therefore also be with us to the end of our nations’ aions as well, as they, in turn, rise and fall by their bloody swords. His non-violent and non-hoarding nation is, in this sense, also the final nation and the end of the nations as uncontested rulers. For those who walk in his way, the truth is that they are already unable to govern us through horror and abuse, as the Freedom Riders have always known. For those who truly hear, understand and heed Jesus, and for those who truly see, know and imitate Jesus, it is the case that the fourth beast has in fact already lost to the four winds that are already gathering us to this Temple.
Is the aion of the entire cosmos also in view here as well? Yes, but only in the most peripheral and implicit way. Matthew does indeed whisper to us that this is the account of Genesis, of New Creation that was always already the Word spoken by Elohim. Matthew tips this hand fully but briefly, for less than a second, when the Pharisees are silenced as their world collides with the Son of Man as both Lord and Son of David. But such things are best spoken of as we speak the name of God. When you see YHWH, you say Adonai. This is the background, the periphery, the brilliance invisible, the subterranean stream of aidios “possibility” that breaks time and possibility themselves against the endlessly fecund mystical void. But this kind of effulgence is not Matthew’s style, nor is it Matthew’s focus. Instead, this book centers governance, especially as an intergenerational process.
It is in just this way that Jesus has accomplished and is accomplishing and will accomplish the victory of Word and Spirit over flesh and blood. Jesus didn’t make a failed prediction of everything being turned to eternal starstuff. It might even be more in line with Matthew’s perspective to suggest that maybe we are all already made of stars, eternal matter. But no matter, Matthew isn’t too worried about any of that either way. The real question is whether we order the stuff of life gently and lovingly and generatively, or cruelly, hatefully and destructively.
Although Jesus doesn’t disappoint as a prophet, I still think that we should look over the 2,000 years that have elapsed since those days, and disappointment should mix with our awe. The disappointment, however, is not that Jesus predicted wrongly. The issue is precisely that he spoke truly, and we have yet to really begin hearing and heeding the announcement. Yes, people can join his Davidic dynasty simply enough by baptism in the name of Father, Son and Spirit. But have we been good rulers or bad ones? And will the church ever live up to its calling, and so endure, or will we finally utterly renounce our birthright and collapse? It is a question for each generation, as each aionically imitates the aion of the Son. In this sense, as siblings, we are all also in his generation as well. What matters, then, is not so much that his predictions were true (though they were), but the degree to which we train in his way and live as he lived. Yes, the siblings of the King can build things that endure, but only insofar as they build on his covenantal rock in Matthew 5–7.
As for me, I don’t think that this is just about ideas. It is, instead, about Word made flesh through the power of the Spirit so that the Messiah can, in us, be genesised.
And with that we are ready to begin. Next we’ll go to the Temple in Matthew 23, and from there we will descend to the East and begin our new climb.
- ** See also 1 Enoch 10 for other possible implicit temporal schemes, but more importantly and less speculatively an illustration of the type. Note that 5 sets of 14 gives 70 generations, as in 1 Enoch: another possible anticipated timeline that places Jesus in the middle of the historical scheme.
James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1 (New York; London: Yale University Press, 1983), 17–19.
And then spoke the Most High, the Great and Holy One! And he sent Asuryal to the son of Lamech, (saying), 2 “Tell him in my name, ‘Hide yourself!’ and reveal to him the end of what is coming; for the earth and everything will be destroyed. And the Deluge is about to come upon all the earth; and all that is in it will be destroyed. 3 And now instruct him in order that he may flee, and his seed will be preserved for all generations.” 4 And secondly the Lord said to Raphael, “Bind Azazʾel hand and foot (and) throw him into the darkness!” And he made a hole in the desert which was in Dudaʾel and cast him there; 5* he threw on top of him rugged and sharp rocks. And he covered his face in order that he may not see light; 6 and in order that he may be sent into the fire on the great day of judgment. 7 And give life to the earth which the angels have corrupted. And he will proclaim life for the earth: that he is giving life to her. And all the children of the people will not perish through all the secrets (of the angels), which they taught to their sons. 8 And the whole earth has been corrupted by Azazʾel’s teaching of his (own) actions; and write upon him all sin. 9 And to Gabriel the Lord said, “Proceed against the bastards and the reprobates and against the children of adultery; and destroy the children of adultery and expel the children of the Watchers from among the people. And send them against one another (so that) they may be destroyed in the fight, for length of days have they not. 10 They will beg you everything — for their fathers on behalf of themselves — because they hope to live an eternal life. (They hope) that each one of them will live a period of five hundred years.” 11* And to Michael God said, “Make known to Semyaza and the others who are with him, who fornicated with the women, that they will die together with them in all their defilement. 12* And when they and all their children have battled with each other, and when they have seen the destruction of their beloved ones, bind them for seventy generations underneath the rocks of the ground until the day of their judgment and of their consummation, until the eternal judgment is concluded. 13* In those days they will lead them into the bottom of the fire — and in torment — in the prison (where) they will be locked up forever. 14 And at the time when they will burn and die, those who collaborated with them will be bound together with them from henceforth unto the end of (all) generations. 15 And destroy all the souls of pleasure and the children of the Watchers, for they have done injustice to man. 16 Destroy injustice from the face of the earth. And every iniquitous deed will end, and the plant of righteousness and truth will appear forever and he will plant joy. 17 And then all the righteous ones will escape; and become the living ones until they multiply and become tens of hundreds; and all the days of their youth and the years of their retirement they will complete in peace. 18 And in those days the whole earth will be worked in righteousness, all of her planted with trees, and will find blessing. 19* And they shall plant pleasant trees upon her — vines. And he who plants a vine upon her will produce wine for plenitude. And every seed that is sown on her, one measure will yield a thousand (measures) and one measure of olives will yield ten measures of presses of oil. 20 And you cleanse the earth from all injustice, and from all defilement, and from all oppression, and from all sin, and from all iniquity which is being done on earth; remove them from the earth. 21 And all the children of the people will become righteous, and all nations shall worship and bless me; and they will all prostrate themselves to me. 22 And the earth shall be cleansed from all pollution, and from all sin, and from all plague, and from all suffering; and it shall not happen again that I shall send (these) upon the earth from generation to generation and forever.
 My comments on the structure of Matthew don’t presume to reconstruct an imputed outline that Matthew may have had. Rather, I view the various structural theories about Matthew (especially the five-fold, chiastic and narrative approaches) as mutually compatible and illuminating, insofar as they don’t claim to be the structure. An analogy to human anatomy can help: we might suggest that the five-fold Torah references are the stonelike bones of the text’s skeletal system, that the geographical narrative (championed by RT France, for example) is like the flowing circulatory system that transports Jesus and us through space and time, and that the use of chiasm that invites us into conscious mirroring and parallelism (although its structure is especially ethereal and hard to pin down) is like the central nervous system of the text. A rich and deep systematic whole, biological or literary, has multiple structures interpenetrating and connecting up at various points, not a singular one.
Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1–7: A Commentary on Matthew 1–7, ed. Helmut Koester, Rev. ed., Hermeneia — a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 2–4.
1.1 Basic Problems
There appears to be broad agreement in scholarship that our Gospel can be divided into sections. There is little agreement, however, when it comes to making such divisions. One seldom asks whether Matthew even had an outline of his book in mind or whether he was too strongly bound to his sources. Here it is already clear that in analyzing the structure we cannot avoid diachronic questions.3 If we were to ask only synchronic questions about the narrative thread, its arrangement, and the function of its individual elements, we would presuppose that Matthew intended to create of his material his own work and thus in a sense to “dominate” the material. It may be, however, that he wanted instead to be in the service of the material and “only” to interpret it. Then it would be less the case that Matthew was the master of his material and more that his material was his master. Then only to a limited degree could we discover his own arrangement in the Gospel of Matthew.5 I will begin, therefore, with three methodological theses:
1. We can inquire in a methodologically controllable way only about the features that on the level of the text make plausible an intentional arrangement of the text. These characteristics permit conclusions about the author’s intention.
2. The belief that we can discover a structure in the Gospel of Matthew is not “neutral.” It already contains assumptions for a possible understanding of the Gospel.
3. If we do not discover any general structure, that does not necessarily mean that Matthew was an incompetent author. Hidden here might be an intention of the author that we would have to interpret.
History of Research
The research offers a rather chaotic picture. We can distinguish roughly among three basic types.
a. The first is the model of the five books that goes back to Bacon. It is based on the five discourses that Matthew has emphasized with an almost identical concluding formula: Matthew 5–7; 10; 13:1–52*; 18*; 24–25*. Bacon prefaced each of them with a narrative section so that the entire Gospel consists of the five books (3–7; 8–10; 11–13:52*; 13:53–18*; 19–25), the introduction (1–2), and the conclusion (26–28). It is possible, but not necessary, to compare this five-part outline with the five books of the Pentateuch so that the Gospel of Matthew would be the new Torah and Jesus the new Moses. The relationship between the contents of the narrative sections and their corresponding discourses is quite varied; sometimes they are minimal. Therefore it is also possible to attach the narrative sections to different discourses.8 In my judgment a unified coordination of the discourses with their narrative context is not possible. Chapters 8–9 belong with the preceding Sermon on the Mount in chaps. 5–7 as the inclusion 4:25*/9:35* shows. The sending discourse of chap. 10 connects directly with both of them. The discourses in chaps. 13 and 18 are most naturally understood as the middle of the corresponding main sections 12:1–16:20* and 16:21–20:34*. The eschatological discourse in chaps. 24–25 brings to a close Jesus’ entire activity as a kind of “testament” of Jesus for his church.
b. I would like to call a second basic type the center model. Here the Gospel is structured chiastically around a center. Most take the third discourse, chap. 13, as the center and arrange the other sections around it chiastically. Then chaps. 1–4 correspond to the concluding chaps. 26–28, the Sermon on the Mount to the eschatological discourse, and so on. There are indeed clues that suggest such parallels: chaps. 5–7 and 24–25 are the two longest discourses, while chaps. 10 and 18 are the two shortest. Furthermore, they are both disciples discourses and are almost exactly the same length. People have suggested many other such chiastic parallels, but they have elicited less agreement. Some have also located the center in chap. 11 or between chaps. 13 and 14. Thus there are also a number of variations of this basic type, and that, of course, is an argument against its plausibility. In the current debate it plays the least significant role.
c. A third basic type closely follows the Gospel of Mark. Therefore I call it the Markan structural model. It assumes a major break between 16:20* and 21*, thus after Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi. The new beginning in 16:21* (“From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples”) is much like the new beginning in 4:17* (“From that time Jesus began to proclaim”). Thus there are two main sections: Jesus’ activity and preaching in Galilee, and his way of suffering leading to Jerusalem. They correspond somewhat to the two main sections of the Gospel of Mark. Matt 1:1–4:16* is the introduction. Unlike the first two basic types, here the basic narrative pattern dominates. The narrative rather than the teaching of Jesus contained in the five discourses determines the structure. Therefore this view is especially popular with scholars who in the concerns of “literary criticism” inquire about the Matthean narrative and its plot. That is not without consequences for the question of the genre and the interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew.
[1.5] Scott Hahn, ed., Catholic Bible Dictionary (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 2009), 230.
The Edomites supported Nebuchadnezzar’s campaign against Jerusalem (587 B.C.) and celebrated the fall of Judah (Ps 137:7; Lam 4:21–22; cf. Amos 1:11–12; Isa 11:14; 21:11, 12; 34:5–17; Jer 49:7–22). Edomite cities were later conquered by John Hyrcanus I in 129 B.C., who compelled the non-Jewish population to be circumcised (1 Macc 4:36–59; 2 Macc 10:1–8). By the first century B.C. Idumea (the Greek spelling of Edom) was under the control of the Hasmonean line, and the region by that time extended from the southern Judean hill country, south of Beth-zur, to the frontier of the Negeb.
[1.6] R. A. Stewart and R J. Way, “Intertestamental Period,” ed. Geoffrey W Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 876.
The first phase of Roman domination in Palestine extended from 63 till 37, and then as later the Jews were uneasy under the yoke. Pompey entered the holy of holies in 63, though he seems merely to have looked around, and Crassus, proconsul of Syria, plundered the temple treasury in 54 (Ant. xiv.4.4 ; 7.1 [105–109]). During most of this period Hyrcanus II, a pitifully ineffective puppet, held nominal rule, civil and ecclesiastical. Freed from his younger brother, yet now subject to the Roman governor, he tended to delegate such real power as he possessed to the Idumean Antipater, whose Edomite origins gave the deepest offense to Jewish sentiment. The incumbency of Hyrcanus ended pathetically after more than twenty years, when his intending successor Antigonus confined him in bonds and then bit deeply into his ears, thereby rendering him ritually unfit for office (Josephus BJ i.13.9 ). Antigonus himself did not last very long, and with him the Hasmonean line came to its end. HEROD, a son of Antipater and therefore also of Edomite blood, secured the backing of Rome in 40 B.C., and was able three years later to consolidate his kingship over a torn and troubled Palestine. During his rivalry with Antigonus he had used and equipped the fortress of Masada W of the Dead Sea.
 W. von Soden, Jan Bergman, and M. Sæbø, “יוֹם,” ed. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, trans. David E. Green, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 7–32.
 James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1 (New York; London: Yale University Press, 1983), 74.
2 Enoch 93:1–10
93 1 Then after that Enoch happened to be recounting from the books. 2 And Enoch said, “Concerning the children of righteousness, concerning the elect ones of the world, and concerning the plant of truth, I will speak these things, my children, verily I, Enoch, myself, and let you know (about it) according to that which was revealed to me from the heavenly vision, that which I have learned from the words of the holy angels, and understood from the heavenly tablets.” 3 He then began to recount from the books and said, “I was born the seventh during the first week, during which time judgment and righteousness continued to endure. 4 After me there shall arise in the second week great and evil things; deceit should grow, and therein the first consummation will take place. But therein (also) a (certain) man shall be saved. After it is ended, injustice shall become greater, and he shall make a law for the sinners.
5 “Then after that at the completion of the third week a (certain) man shall be elected as the plant of the righteous judgment, and after him one (other)l shall emerge as the eternal plant of righteousness.
6 “After that at the completion of the fourth week visions of the old and righteous ones shall be seen; and a law shall be made with a fence, for all the generations.
7 “After that in the fifth week, at the completion of glory, a house and a kingdom shall be built.
8 “After that in the sixth week those who happen to be in it shall all of them be blindfolded, and the hearts of them all shall forget wisdom. Therein, a (certain) man shall ascend. And, at its completion, the house of the kingdom shall be burnt with fire; and therein the whole clan of the chosen root shall be dispersed.
9 “After that in the seventh week an apostate generation shall arise; its deeds shall be many, and all of them criminal. 10 At its completion, there shall be elected the elect ones of righteousness from the eternal plant of righteousness, to whom shall be given sevenfold instruction concerning all his flock.
 Iain Provan, “Daniel,” in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 673–674.
The divine response to Daniel’s prayer is a further vision in which the angel Gabriel comes to explain the true significance of the Jeremiah prophecy. Daniel has been praying for an end to the desolation (Heb. shamam, vv. 17–18) of Jerusalem, referring in the first instance to the ruined state of the city during the period of physical exile. The word that comes to him from God, however, concerns not only this but also the ending of all the appalling things (desolations) which have happened to this city — an allusion to the abomination of desolation already mentioned in ch. 8. After the exile, when the city has long been rebuilt (9:25), further desolations are decreed (v. 26). The “exile” that Jeremiah had in mind (seventy years) has now been extended: Jerusalem’s desolations will not truly cease until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator (the anti-Messiah of chs. 7 and 8; cf. esp. 8:13 with 9:25–27) and the messianic kingdom has arrived at the end of “seventy weeks” (9:24).
As with the other numbers in Daniel, there have been many attempts to correlate these “seventy weeks” with a specific time-period and thus to arrive at a detailed timetable of events. They are most often understood in the light of Lev 25:8. If seven weeks of years comprise 49 years (as there), then seventy weeks of years should comprise 490. It is most improbable, however, that the author means us to think literally of 490 years. It is more likely that it is precisely the parallels with the sabbatical years which should guide us as to meaning, for the 49 years of Leviticus are followed by the jubilee, when there is rest from toil and social justice is enacted (Lev 25:10–55). The 490 years should likewise be taken simply as a way of speaking about the present age of toil and trouble, which is to be followed by the era of the kingdom of God. 9:24 first summarizes by means of three pairs of phrases what is to happen during the present age. “The transgression which appalls” will be removed and a period of eternal right-doing replace a period of apostasy. God will indeed put an end to all sin, and perhaps to visions and prophecy as well. This last point, however, is not clear since the imagery of sealing might refer either to finishing (as the sealing of a letter is the last act in writing a letter) or to giving the stamp of authenticity (visionaries and prophets will receive the seal of approval — everything will come to pass as they promised). Finally, all sin will be accounted for and pardoned, and someone or something holy will be anointed (Heb. mashaḥ). Since in both the occurrences of the Heb. mashaḥ in vv. 25–26 a person is involved, it is likely that this is the case also in v. 24 — that this is another reference to the Messiah figure of ch. 7 (an anointed king) who comes to set all things right. The structure of v. 24 implies, in fact, that it is this figure that will be involved in “atoning for iniquity.”
In 9:25–27, the 70 weeks are further broken down, although the nature of the breakdown is a little unclear. It is possible that we are to envisage periods of 7, 62, and 1 weeks (NRSV), 7 weeks preceding the coming of an anointed one (mashiaḥ — this would perhaps then be a reference to the Davidic line of kings being reestablished after the exile) and a further 62 weeks preceding a time in which a second anointed one is cut off. Alternatively, we might envisage periods of 69 and 1 weeks, after which a single anointed one is cut off. The starting point is the time when the word went out to rebuild Jerusalem (v. 25) — a word of Jeremiah, perhaps (e.g., Jer 30:18–22), or the decree of Cyrus in Ezra 1:1–4, or the word of Artaxerxes in Neh 2:1–8. What is clear is that the rebuilding of Jerusalem does not lead to a time of quiet, but rather to a “troubled time” (9:25) — the city is not yet free of “desolations” in the broader sense. At the end of the 69 weeks, disaster strikes. The “anointed one” suffers a violent death, not further specified, and the city and the sanctuary are destroyed (v. 26). Here we have a new idea in relation to the picture in chs. 7–8: that before the time in which the Messiah conquers the anti-Messiah, he suffers a reverse at his hands. The rightful prince, the Messiah (Heb. mashiaḥ), is displaced by the prince who comes to destroy (Heb. yashḥit). The play on words is designed to reinforce the point. The final week of the seventy then follows, with war and desolations throughout. The wicked king wins many to his side in this period (9:27), and is able to carry on his anti-God crusade successfully for half of it (the time, times, and half a time of ch. 7 [= 3.5, or half a period of seven], or the 1,150 days of ch. 8). Then the decreed end comes, however (9:27), Heb. kalah, “end,” being related to the “finishing” of the transgression in v. 24 — the transgression which appalls will be finished when the anti-Messiah comes to his “end” in the “flood” of v. 26.
It is not difficult to see why later Christian interpreters saw in this material a prophecy of Jesus Christos (the Greek equivalent of Heb. mashiaḥ) — a Messiah suffering a violent death, atoning for the sins of the world, before returning (as in chs. 7–8) in power and glory to vanquish the forces of evil.
 Augustine of Hippo, “On the Catechising of the Uninstructed,” in St. Augustin: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. S. D. F. Salmond, vol. 3, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 307–308.
chap. 22. — of the six ages of the world.
39. “Five ages of the world, accordingly, having been now completed (there has entered the sixth). Of these ages the first is from the beginning of the human race, that is, from Adam, who was the first man that was made, down to Noah, who constructed the ark at the time of the flood. Then the second extends from that period on to Abraham, who was called 2 the father indeed of all nations which should follow the example of his faith, but who at the same time in the way of natural descent from his own flesh was the father of the destined people of the Jews; which people, previous to the entrance of the Gentiles into the Christian faith, was the one people among all the nations of all lands that worshipped the one true God: from which people also Christ the Saviour was decreed to come according to the flesh. For these turning-points 4 of those two ages occupy an eminent place in the ancient books. On the other hand, those of the other three ages are also declared in the Gospel, where the descent of the Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh is likewise mentioned. For the third age extends from Abraham on to David the king; the fourth from David on to that captivity whereby the people of God passed over into Babylonia; and the fifth from that transmigration down to the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ. With His coming the sixth age has entered on its process; so that now the spiritual grace, which in previous times was known to a few patriarchs and prophets, may be made manifest to all nations; to the intent that no man should worship God but freely, 6 fondly desiring of Him not the visible rewards of His services and the happiness of this present life, but that eternal life alone in which he is to enjoy God Himself: in order that in this sixth age the mind of man may be renewed after the image of God, even as on the sixth day man was made after the image of God. For then, too, is the law fulfilled, when all that it has commanded is done, not in the strong desire for things temporal, but in the love of Him who has given the commandment. Who is there, moreover, who should not be earnestly disposed to give the return of love to a God of supreme righteousness and also of supreme mercy, who has first loved men of the greatest unrighteousness and the loftiest pride, and that, too, so deeply as to have sent in their behalf His only Son, by whom He made all things, and who being made man, not by any change of Himself, but by the assumption of human nature, was designed thus to become capable not only of living with them, but also of dying at once for them and by their hands?
40. “Thus, then, showing forth the New Testament of our everlasting inheritance, wherein man was to be renewed by the grace of God and lead a new life, that is, a spiritual life; and with the view of exhibiting the first one as an old dispensation, wherein a carnal people acting out the old man (with the exception of a few patriarchs and prophets, who had understanding, and some hidden saints), and leading a carnal life, desiderated carnal rewards at the hands of the Lord God, and received in that fashion but the figures of spiritual blessings; — with this intent, I say, the Lord Christ, when made man, despised all earthly good things, in order that He might show us how these things ought to be despised; and He endured all earthly ills which He was inculcating as things needful to be endured; so that neither might our happiness be sought for in the former class, nor our unhappiness be apprehended in the latter. For being born of a mother who, although she conceived without being touched by man and always remained thus untouched, in virginity conceiving, in virginity bringing forth, in virginity dying, had nevertheless been espoused to a handicraftsman, He extinguished all the inflated pride of carnal nobility. Moreover, being born in the city of Bethlehem, which among all the cities of Judæa was so insignificant that even in our own day it is designated a village, He willed not that any one should glory in the exalted position of any city of earth. He, too, whose are all things and by whom all things were created, was made poor, in order that no one, while believing in Him, might venture to boast himself in earthly riches. He refused to be made by men a king, because He displayed the pathway of humility to those unhappy ones whom pride had separated from Him; and yet universal creation attests the fact of His everlasting kingdom. An hungered was He who feeds all men; athirst was He by whom is created whatsoever is drunk, and who in a spiritual manner is the bread of the hungry and the fountain of the thirsty; in journeying on earth, wearied was He who has made Himself the way for us into heaven; as like one dumb and deaf in the presence of His revilers was He by whom the dumb spoke and the deaf heard; bound was He who freed us from the bonds of infirmities; scourged was He who expelled from the bodies of man the scourges of all distresses; crucified was He who put an end to our crucial pains; dead did He become who raised the dead. But He also rose again, no more to die, so that no one should from Him learn so to contemn death as if he were never to live again.
Bonaventure’s later reference to the same sort of schematic parallelism is worth noting as well, illustrating the enduring influence of Augustine’s observations almost 1000 years later, and the recurring nature of these kinds of analogical observations:
Bonaventure, Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God; The Tree of Life; The Life of St. Francis, ed. Richard J. Payne, trans. Ewert Cousins, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 127.
Finally, the fulness of time (Gal. 4:4) had come. Just as man was formed from the earth on the sixth day by the power and wisdom of the divine hand, so at the beginning of the sixth age, the Archangel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin. When she gave her consent to him, the Holy Spirit came upon her like a divine fire inflaming her soul and sanctifying her flesh in perfect purity. But the power of the Most High overshadowed her (Luke 1:35) so that she could endure such fire. By the action of that power, instantly his body was formed, his soul created, and at once both were united to the divinity in the Person of the Son, so that the same Person was God and man, with the properties of each nature maintained.
 Eyal Regev, The Temple in Early Christianity: Experiencing the Sacred, ed. John J. Collins, The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2019), 314–317.
Early Christian attitudes toward the Temple originated when Jesus overturned the tables. By the end of the first century some Christians believed that Christ resides with the Lord in the heavenly Temple or serves there as the high priest for eternity. It is therefore no wonder that until recently many regarded the early-Christian belief system as setting itself against the Temple. However, a close analysis reveals that these and many other treatments of the Temple cult are actually not intended to eliminate or supersede the Jewish concept of the Temple by establishing a radical new replacement but rather to create a continuation of contemporary Jewish ideas relating to the Temple.
Classifying early Christian discourse on the Temple into positive and negative approaches seems to miss the point, since this is not the main thrust of the NT texts. The NT authors do not simply react to the Temple as a “Jewish” (namely, external or remote) cultic institution and symbol. They treat it as a place and a concept that are inherent to their thinking about Jesus and their own identity. The four evangelists situate Jesus in the Temple time and again (although for different reasons) while he teaches the people. Paul coins cultic metaphors to conceptualize the sacred status of Christ, the believers, and himself as an apostle. Hebrews and Revelation develop the theme of the Temple through the concept of a heavenly Temple, creating new cultic imagery which draws heavily on the old.
The contents and meaning of all these treatments of the Temple have been summarized and analyzed in the previous chapter. Here I briefly discuss two general issues that build on the previous chapters, namely, the relationship of the early Christians to Judaism and the implications of comprehending the Jerusalem Temple in the first century.
What does the idea of the Temple in early Christianity teach us about its relationship with “Judaism” or with non-Christian Jews? This naturally depends on how one defines early Christian self-identity: Is it a “religion” already separate from “Judaism,” a Jewish sect, a (Jewish?) voluntary association, or (as I believe) a new religious movement or Cult within Jewish society and culture (see Regev 2011a; Regev 2016b). Whatever the case, early Christian authors draw heavily on the Temple as a major Jewish institution as well as on the concepts of the Temple and the sacrificial cult. They do so while minimally discrediting the legitimacy of the Jerusalem Temple and the sacrifices, even as they propose alternatives after its destruction. Some refer to the Temple in the conventional Jewish manner as a holy place for worshiping God, a location where all Jews meet with reverence to God and the Torah. Paul and perhaps also John (“the temple of his body”) create these metaphors to explain innovative ideas, and Hebrews and Revelation transform them entirely with Christ as a high priest in the heavenly Temple and the Lamb who resides therein.
Whether referring to the Temple in the standard manner or a radical one, these authors are undoubtedly aware that they are sharing this key symbol with non-Christian Jews, and this seems to be one of their hidden messages: that they share the same holy center devoted to the one and only God despite their differences and persecution by fellow Jews. The Temple, real or imagined, is being set against all the nations and cults devoted to other gods in the Greco-Roman world. Thus the intense yet diverse application of Temple-related ideas in early Christian discourse serves a double function: It fosters new avenues of thinking about Christ, his authority, closeness to God, and sacredness, while at the same time these ideas are expressed within a Jewish matrix, relating to the belief in the God of Israel and, to a certain extent, the Torah or the Law (which prescribes the existence of the Temple). Indeed, as the author of Hebrews concedes, the concept of God’s Temple cannot be disassociated from the Law.
The Temple in Jerusalem is viewed by Jews and Gentiles alike as a basic institution of the ethnos of the Ioudaioi. Josephus and Philo declare that there is “one Temple for one God” (Against Apion 2.193; cf. Ant. 4.200–201; Spec. Laws 1.67), and entry to its sacred precincts is forbidden to Gentiles (War 5.194; cf. Acts 21:28). To outsiders this approach toward this specific Temple of the God of Israel must appear to be distinctively Jewish. The early Christian authors themselves probably believe their thinking to be inherent to the Jewish matrix, variations on a theme common to all Jews. For Gentile and Jewish-Christians alike, the Temple discourse is a sort of engagement with and development of the Jewishness of early Christianity. Yet contemporary Jews such as the Sadducean high priests and Pharisaic sages probably did not regard it as a legitimate variation of Jewish principles. To the contrary, transforming this most sensitive key symbol would probably be regarded as blasphemy on a par with Jesus’s so-called cleansing of the Temple.
The descriptions of the Temple in NT texts have significant implications for our understanding of the Jerusalem Temple in that period. The many references to the immorality of the high priests and the quarrels related to the Temple are frequently cited, and some even argue that its status as the major place of worship deteriorated when synagogues and rabbis began to compete and flourish. This raises the question of why Jesus and the apostles attended the Temple frequently, or why the early Christian writers associated Jesus with the Temple. If the Temple had become less important, why do Paul, 1 Peter, Hebrews, and Revelation build so heavily upon it as a concept in order to convince their readers that their new ideas about Christ cohere with or continue old cultic conceptions? The Temple and the sacrificial cult are a symbolic field with ample meaning for the early Christians, and with substantive polishing and reshaping it makes sense of their new, radical belief in Jesus. I suggest that the early Christian approaches also indicate many non-Christian Jews who still regard the Temple cult as both the center of their belief and practices and a substantial element of their group/ethnic identity.
The year 70 CE is generally considered to mark the end of the Temple. For the early rabbis and other Jews, the Temple now becomes a memory and the target for substitutions such as prayer, charity, and the study of Torah. Yet while most of the NT authors are writing after its destruction they nevertheless cling to the Temple almost as if it were still standing. At the very least they consider it to be a most vivid symbol. It is the model for prayer, closeness to God, and, above all, for following Jesus! If the Temple has not ceased to be a key symbol of these authors and their readers, it certainly continues to occupy the minds of Jews with a sounder Jewish identity.
Finally, the narratives, imagery, and ideas of the NT authors attest to the richness of the Temple as an institution and as an inspiring symbol. When Paul and the authors of the gospel of John, Revelation, and Hebrews need to explain who or what Christ is, to formulate new and radical Christologies, and to make them comprehensible to audiences who have at least some knowledge of the Hebrew/Greek Bible, they turn to the Temple and the sacrificial cult. For them, the cult is a vehicle for expressing their spiritual thoughts, experiences, and visions. They neither want the Temple to disappear nor do they want to replace it; rather, they want to recreate the Temple and its cult in a new and symbolic manner.
My own thesis builds on Eyal Regev’s observations about the centrality of money to the problem that Jesus has with the Temple. However, I diverge (for example) in seeing the widow’s mite as a critique of the system’s abuses as well. This strengthens rather than weakens his basic thesis. Still, from the center of the abuse of money, Matthew’s Jesus unfolds a much broader critique of the whole spiritual political economy involved in the Temple’s fiscal corruption, and connects it to the judgment scenes at the close of Deuteronomy especially.
Eyal Regev’s thesis is stated succinctly here (ibid. 32–34):
CRITIQUE AND ALTERNATIVE: MONEY AND RIGHTEOUSNESS — A GENERAL CALL
The previous discussion demonstrates how most of the interpretations of the cleansing contain some kernel of truth — an element of historical evidence, a generally accepted view of Jesus’s message, or an ideological motivation. Yet each contains weaknesses as well.
Many of these views suffer from the underlying problem that the intended meaning of Jesus’s act cannot be clear to the audience that witnesses it. It’s hard to believe that a random crowd in the Temple would understand monolithically that overturning the tables definitively symbolizes either the Temple’s destruction and subsequent rebuilding, rejection of the Herodian/high priestly dominance and its corruption, or the separation between Jews and Gentiles. At best, this audience can be assumed to grasp only that Jesus’s protest is related in a general sense to the presence of money in the Temple.
The most fundamental flaw in most of the reconstructions surveyed above is a pattern of attributions to Jesus of concepts about the Temple not recorded elsewhere in the synoptic tradition. There are no attestations in the NT of opposition to commerce on the Temple Mount, no direct condemnations of the chief priests despite their active role in Jesus’s execution, no sources of evidence for the inclusion of Gentiles in the Temple, and no hopes for the erection of a Temple building. Some of the general cultic or political ideologies that are read into Mark’s short description might be characteristic of certain radical Jewish groups — such as the Zealots — or of later Christians, including Mark himself. In fact, Jesus hardly mentions the Temple at all either before and after the “cleansing.” Even the saying about destroying and building the Temple in three days is attributed to him by false witnesses (Mark 14:58; 15:29, see below). Is it possible that the initial subject of his act was not the Temple?
My own interpretation of the cleansing is grounded in recognizing that common to all of the details of Jesus’s act is money. Namely, all of these descriptions and sources refer to the buying, selling, changing, and (according to many interpretations) prohibiting of a vessel from entering the Temple — a vessel which probably contains money or goods. Jesus is addressing a specific problem of money in the Temple. In another tradition, Jesus does not object to money in the Temple. He praises the small donation of a poor widow to the Temple’s treasury (Mark 12:41–44; see chapter 3). Money in the Temple, therefore, is not inherently good or bad. If a donation to the Temple can be an act of religious piety, the problem does not lie in the basic institution of money and the Temple. And we should also note that Jesus attacks both sellers and buyers, all of whom are Israelite laypeople.
If Jesus’s act targets money in a very particular context, we should look at his other teachings about money (of which there are many in both Q and Mark) as well as what their general thrust may tell us about the Historical Jesus. In these as well as in the Sermon on the Mount and in the parables Jesus teaches against the accumulation of wealth and the destructive force of money. He also stresses that the destitute are potentially more righteous than the rich. Wealth and materialism lead one astray from both true worship of God and moral behavior: “No one can serve two masters.… You cannot serve God and Mammon.”
Another key issue rooted in both Mark and Q is Jesus’s preaching on the need for moral behavior, emphasizing that immorality produces (metaphoric) impurity, “the things that come out are what defile.” This idea is probably also related to the view that wealth leads to unrighteousness and corruption. Both show Jesus’s ethical sensitivity. It is likely that money leads to unrighteousness and produces moral impurity in Jesus’s worldview. If wickedness is defiling, then money used to accomplish wickedness — or money earned by wickedness — may be both contaminated and contaminating.
I propose that Jesus’s message in the cleansing is that the money of unrighteous people corrupts or defiles the Temple cult. His protest is not directed against the Temple. He calls for protecting the Temple from the unrighteousness transmitted to it through money contributed to the Temple that had previously been used for changing coins for the half-shekel tribute or buying an animal for sacrifice.
In the cleansing of the Temple, the concept of wealth as a vehicle for corruption is interwoven with the idea of the defiling force of sin. Although there is no direct combination of the two ideas in the gospels or any clear statement that the money of the wicked is metaphorically defiled by their moral impurity, I maintain that these two ideas are logically related.
The object of Jesus’s wrath is the money itself, its essence contaminated by its use in the financing of sacrifices and offerings before being delivered to priestly officials. His act is directed not just against the trading adjacent to the Temple’s sacred courts, but specifically against money that is tainted by injustice and corruption. Corrupted wealth is morally impure in a metaphorical sense, blemishing the sacrificial rite. The sanctity of sacrifices and rituals is compromised by the money that finances them.
If I am correct, Jesus protests against neither the Temple itself nor the priests but against the unrighteous activity that employs or generates corrupted money. This seems to be the same abstract immorality against which Jesus preaches over and over again without singling out any specific group or class. The reason for his protest on the Temple Mount is that when this money is being used for buying sacrifices, it threatens the moral — not the ritual — purity of the Temple cult. Perhaps the reason he attacks the sellers is that it is easier to overturn their tables and chairs than to disperse the coins of the individual buyers. Hence he may be more concerned with the overall moral pollution of the Temple than with the unrighteousness of those buyers.
Like all of the scholarly views on the cleansing cited thus far, mine is an interpretation, a conjecture without proof. Nonetheless, it offers two advantages. First, it attributes to the Historical Jesus two ideas that are well attested to elsewhere tying them together in the Temple act. Thus I regard the cleansing as the continuation and practical application of views Jesus has expressed before the event. Second, there is a close parallel to the view in Qumran that unrighteous money defiles the Temple. In the Damascus Document VI, 13–17, the authors call on the members of the sect to “separate [themselves] from the sons of the pit and to refrain from the wicked wealth [which is] impure due to oath[s] and dedication[s] and to [its being] the wealth of the sanctuary, [for] they (i.e., the sons of the pit) steal from the poor of his people, preying upon wid[ow]s and murdering orphans.” Here the “wicked” stolen money is contaminated by impurity. When it is donated to the Temple’s treasury, it causes the pollution of the cult. Thus the explicit cause of the Temple’s impurity is the fact that the money donated to the Temple is “money of wickedness.” It seems that if one deems certain acts or people to be corrupt, one is likely to declare the money associated with them to be taboo as well.
Eyal Regev, The Temple in Early Christianity: Experiencing the Sacred, ed. John J. Collins, The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2019), 31–34.
[5.1] John Kampen, Matthew within Sectarian Judaism, ed. John J. Collins, Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2019), 71.
Then abruptly in 5:1–2, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them.” In other words, it would appear that Matthew is telling readers that the Sermon is addressed to the disciples, or at least that is how commentators have tended to read this line. However, the assumption that this material is addressed only to the disciples does not seem to be warranted. If we look to the end of the sermon, in 7:28–29 we surprisingly read that “the crowds were amazed by his teaching.” In other words, he has been teaching them all along. The connection between the crowds and the disciples is also apparent with the use of the word akolutheō (follow) with reference to the crowds in 4:25.
[5.2] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1–7: A Commentary on Matthew 1–7, ed. Helmut Koester, Rev. ed., Hermeneia — a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 182.
It is not clear from the wording whether Jesus was evading or teaching the crowds. Not until the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount (7:28–29*) is it clear that the latter is meant. Thus it is as though the Sermon on the Mount has two concentric circles of hearers: disciples and people. After 4:23–25*, “people” of course means the people of Israel. Jesus is not only Israel’s healing Messiah; he is also Israel’s teaching Messiah. However, the first readers would also have remembered the “people” to whom they are to proclaim Jesus’ gospel. The joint appearance of the disciples and the people excludes certain interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount. It cannot be an ethic for the disciples in the narrower sense, that is, an ethic only of the “perfect.” Thus a two-level ethic is excluded. The Sermon on the Mount is an ethic for the disciples, but it also applies to the listening people. At the most one might understand the Sermon on the Mount as a discourse designed to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom to the people who proleptically are already following Jesus. For Matthew the mountain is the place of prayer (14:23*), of healings (15:29*), of revelation (17:1*; 28:16*), and of teaching (24:3*). It does not have one established meaning.
[5.3] W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, vol. 1, International Critical Commentary (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 726.
Despite the genuine continuity between the teaching of Jesus and the Jewish Torah, there is something new about the Messiah’s speech. His teaching first goes beyond the letter of the law and makes what the evangelist probably understood to be an unprecedented demand for purity of intention and harsh self-denial. Secondly, the teaching is unlike that of the doctors of the law in so far as it depends not upon the OT or Jewish tradition but solely upon the authority of the speaker, who is in this like a true prophet. By what we may call his intuitive awareness of the will of God in its nakedness, Jesus proclaims what all should do. He does not call upon any mediate authority (cf. Abrahams 1, p. 15). The man himself, in daring boldness, is his own authority. He thus rewrites the rules of the serious game he is playing. Contrast y. Pesaḥ 6:1:33a: Hillel ‘discoursed of the matter all the day, but they did not receive his teaching until he said, Thus I heard from Shemaiah and Abtalion’. Lastly, if it is true, as George Orwell wrote, that ‘Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style’, then we have in Jesus’ fresh and vivid, home-made images sure indication that he spoke for himself and did not follow any party line. This implies novelty of some sort.
Note that Allison carries forward the basic perspective of the ICC from his own predecessor:
Willoughby C. Allen, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to S. Matthew, International Critical Commentary (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1907), 70.
It was fitting that the exposition of the Christian law of the kingdom should have been given on a mountain as the Old Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Cf. in this Gospel the mountain of temptation (4:8), the mountain of transfiguration (17:1), and the mountain upon which the Lord gave His final commands to the disciples (28:16).
[5.4] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1–7: A Commentary on Matthew 1–7, ed. Helmut Koester, Rev. ed., Hermeneia — a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 182.
I adopt this perspective advisedly, with all due respect to those like Ulrich Luz and John Kampen who dissent from it. I share their concerns with matters of supercessionism and I also insist on placing Matthew’s Jesus firmly within his Judahite/Jewish/(Greco)-Hebrew context. The primary differences between the Covenant on the Mount and the Mosaic Covenant, in my view, involve the unequivocal stance toward violence in the Covenant on the Mount and its lack of geographic limitation. It therefore is fundamentally and deeply compatible with the Mosaic Covenant, but holds it by virtue of its explicit international scope.
The argument offered by Luz, that the presence of the people speaks against the view, can just as easily be accounted for in a variety of other ways. If “one greater than David is here” (Matthew 12:6) who even David calls Lord (Matthew 22:46), a consilient reading of Matthew suggests that God is showing His face to the people in a new way. The extreme elevation of Jesus is, of course, a major theme of Matthew.
It is probable that associations with Moses’ ascent of Sinai (Exod 19:3*, 12*; 24:15*, 18*; 34:1–2*, 4*) are connected with the formulation “to go up the mountain” (ἀναβαίνω εἰ̃ τὸ ὄρος). The conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount (7:28–29*) also recalls these texts.5 However, that does not yet mean that the evangelist sees Jesus programmatically as a second Moses. That here the people, unlike Israel in the wilderness, are with Jesus on the mountain already speaks against that view. We have here no more than an association; the Moses typology is by no means the basic framework within which the Sermon on the Mount is to be interpreted. Only the reminiscence of Israel’s basic history is clear: now through Jesus God will again speak fundamentally to Israel just as he did long ago on Mount Sinai. Only the Sermon on the Mount itself will show how Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom is related to the Law of Moses.
John Kampen, Matthew within Sectarian Judaism, ed. John J. Collins, Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2019), 72.
That this composition addresses issues of concern to the Jewish community is evident in the treatment of the figure of Moses in this introductory material. In his argument for the portrayal of Jesus as a new Moses in the first gospel, Dale Allison has collected and examined all the material bearing upon this portrayal. Allison’s central argument has been and is subject to debate. The caution expressed by Luz that the abundance of the material related to Moses does not mean that Jesus is therefore portrayed as a second Moses is well-taken.18 Of significance for our concerns is the observation that the utilization of the figure of Moses is most apparent in the first section of the composition, Matt 1:1–8:1.
Insofar as Jesus is presented as a new Moses, the Mosaic covenant is transcended purely on its own terms, immanently. It is no critique of the Mosaic covenant, either now or in Matthew’s original context, to say that it is a covenant with respect to a particular land regarding whether a people will continue to occupy it. That is, precisely, what it also says about itself, especially in its climactic moments at the close of Deuteronomy. The fulfillment of the terms of the Mosaic covenant is, precisely, national death: the removal of the people from the land. Matthew is clearly concerned primarily with just such a fulfillment in 70 AD. It is no insult to the Torah to read it through to the end, and to think that its terms can be fulfilled at least twice.
by the author.