Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Lost in the logos

Mocking him for his bizarre and grandiose claims, the police beat the terrorist suspect before he was put to death by executive order.

This project of blogging Matthew's gospel will conclude with questions. 
When I began this study I had a modest goal, which was to read and comment 
on the text in the manner of contemporary recaps of TV shows like Breaking 
Bad or Mad Men. When I was watching those shows I liked to read some of the 
online discussions and reviews. I thought I could have a similarly 
informal, even vulgar, discussion of the first book in the New Testament. I 
planned to read a chapter or two and then write what came to mind. 

Although I was raised on the Christian Bible, and was taught in Sunday School for 
two decades before I took up my own study (from a new perspective) I soon 
found myself lost in what one would suppose to be familiar territory. When 
I saw that I was lost in the text I knew I was on the right path.

Matthew 24:1 As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his 
disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 Then he 
asked them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone 
will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Matthew 27:59 Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for 
false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, 60 but 
they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came 
forward 61 and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of 
God and to build it in three days.’” 62 The high priest stood up and said, 
“Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” 63 But 
Jesus was silent.

This bit about rebuilding the temple in three days wasn't mentioned in 
Matthew before this testimony, and in 24:2 Jesus didn't say he would throw 
down the stones, so the witnesses seem to be distorting the truth.
Does Matthew want us to identify Jesus' body with the 
temple, "rebuilt" or resurrected in three days? Is he suggesting that the 
temple priests are somehow responsible for  the destruction of Temple?

Matthew 27:63 Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath 
before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” 64 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.”
65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why 
do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy.

Did Jesus answer Caiaphus' question? "You have said so" was Jesus' reply to 
Judas'  "Surely not I, Rabbi?" in 26: 25. The implication in both cases is 
that the questions are really statements. Jesus then says something that 
the high priest declares blasphemous:

 But I tell you, From now on you will see the Human Being
    seated at the right hand of Power
    and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Maybe Jesus was being ironic?

Why  did Jesus say "son of man" in reply to the high priest's "son of God?" 
"Son of man" means human being, but Jesus also seemed to use it in a 
specific way to refer to himself as the messiah. I would have to go back to find the other times he used that term.

The human being seated at the right hand of power, as in the first verse of 
Psalm 110 (which Jesus brought up earlier, as a puzzle of interpretation, when he was teaching in the temple), interpreted to mean the messiah, is here identified with the "one 
like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven" from one of Daniel's 
terrifying dreams, and Jesus said the high priest will see this, "from now 
He seems to be saying that the messianic time has begun. What did he mean?

Before the Roman authority he again answers "You say so," this time to 
Pilate's asking if he is the King of the Jews. Pilate knew that Herod 
Antipas was the king, of course, so he was either asking if Jesus intended 
to overthrow Herod  or if he was crazy.

Mark's version says that Barabbus was in prison for his part in an 
insurrection in which a murder took place. Matthew only says he was a 
notorious criminal. 

Matthew adds the part about Pilate washing his hands before the mob and 
declaring his innocence, while the crowd (led by the priests) reply, "Let 
his blood be on our children." Christian Anti-semites continue to take this to be a curse on all Jews, and a rationale for persecution and genocide.

The account of the death of Jesus seems to mix eye witness accounts with 
bits from Psalm 22, starting with, "they divide my clothes among 
themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots," and finishing with, "My 
God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Tomorrow I'll write about the events after his death, but for now note that
Matthew 28: 11 adds an alternate explanation for the empty tomb:

...some of the guard went into the city and told the chief 
priests everything that had happened. 12 After the priests had assembled 
with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the 
soldiers, 13 telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and 
stole him away while we were asleep.’14 If this comes to the governor’s 
ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the 
money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the 
Jews to this day.

-- and not only "the Jews," certainly, to this day.

In October I wrote:
So much of this gospel is uninspiring, and even depressing, because of its anti- Pharisee propaganda, but it reflects the situation of Matthew's community soon after the destruction of the temple, and decades after Jesus' crucifixion, when his followers were accused of heresy and spreading propaganda about their dead messiah. I wonder if the real point of Matthew's attacks on the Pharisees is to discredit their claim that Jesus' disciples had stolen Jesus' body and lied about the resurrection. The Jesus movement was based on a small group of followers  who claimed to have witnessed the resurrected Jesus and to have been called by him to spread his message until the messiah returns and the messianic age is realized, utopia now.

The scripture Jesus quotes that causes Caiaphas to tear his garment is Daniel'saccount of a dream, a night vision, and the "one like a human being" was, according to a footnote in the NRSV, traditionally thought to be the Messiah, but was more likely the figure elsewhere in Daniel identified as the angel Michael, who  I will mention in tomorrow's post.

Daniel 7: 

I saw one like a human being
    coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
    and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion
    and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
    that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
    that shall never be destroyed.


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