Tales from the Magi (the Revelation of the Magi)

Soon we will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and remember the story that Matthew tells, of wise men travelling from the east, with gifts to bring to the infant Jesus (Matt 2:1-12).

Matthew doesn’t record how many Magi made this trip; this Gospel indicates only that there were more than one, by using the plural form of the noun magus. It is likely that the mention of three specific gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh, at Matt 2:11) led the tradition to settle on three as an appropriate number.

The Magi don’t have names in Matthew, either. They are given names, and places of origin, in a document written in Greek around 500 CE, although this survives only in a Latin translation from the 9th century with the title Excerpta Latina Barbari . Because of this document, the Western churches identify the Magi as Melchior, from Persia; Caspar, from India; and Balthazar, from Arabia. But in many early churches, especially in Syria, there were actually twelve magi visiting Jesus and bringing him gifts.

In amongst the documents from antiquity that are explicitly Christian, but not included in our canonical collection, there is a work called The Revelation of the Magi. The text is found, along with other works, in a Syriac manuscript known as the Chronicle of Zuqnin.

The story is told from the perspective of the Magi, who certainly number more than three in this document—perhaps even more than twelve. They are described quite differently from how they appear in the canonical account. Brent Landau completed a Harvard ThD dissertation on this document in 2008, and has since published Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2010), based on his dissertation. He summarises the work:

The Magi hail from a mythological eastern land named Shir, and the name “Magi,” it is said, derives etymologically from their practice of praying in silence. They knew to follow the star to Bethlehem because they are descendants of Seth, the third child of Adam and Eve, who passed on to them a prophecy told to him by his father Adam.

The star appears to the Magi in the Cave of Treasures on the Mountain of Victories. There it transforms into a small, luminous being (clearly Christ, but his precise identity is never explicitly revealed) and instructs them about its origins and their mission.

The Magi follow the star to Bethlehem, where it transforms into the infant Jesus. Upon returning to their land, the Magi instruct their people about the star-child. In an epilogue likely secondary to the text, Judas Thomas arrives in Shir, baptizes the Magi and commissions them to preach throughout the world.

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Of course, we recognise this to be pure fantasy—a story developed from the shorter, more modest account that we find in the Gospel of Matthew. And even that canonical account, when we read it with care, can be recognised as an elaboration of a story derived from various “prophecies” in the Hebrew Scriptures—which is the way that the author of Matthew’s Gospel shapes all of his first two chapters (see Matt 1:22; 2:5,15,17,23).

The rising of the star in the east, for instance, correlates with the prophet Balaam’s prediction in Num 24:17 that “a star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”. The identification of the star as being “in the east” comes because, in Greek, the word for “east” is the same as “rising”. The Greek translation thus is ambiguous about whether the star simply “rises up out of Israel” or whether it is “to the east” of Israel.

We can see this ambiguity if we compare how different recent translations of the Bible render this phrase in Matt 2:9 — “a star they saw in the east” (KJV), “the star they had seen when it rose” (NIV and ESV), “the star they had seen at its rising” (NRSV), “the star they had seen in the east” (NLT)

The story reflects a verse in an oracle in Third Isaiah, addressed to the nation of Israel, which foresees a time when “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa 60:3).

Two of the three gifts draw from later in this oracle (Isa 60:6), reflecting gold and frankincense being brought to Jerusalem by visitors from Sheba (a kingdom in South Arabia). The gifts, it is claimed, are symbolic of what is to come. The gold is considered to symbolise the royal status of the child, as he is of the line of David. The frankincense is connected with the Temple cult, and thus considered a symbol of the priestly role eventually to be played by the child.

And the myrrh, in Christian tradition, is linked with the death that will be experienced by the infant when he has grown to maturity—death at the hands of a Romans, who offered him wine mixed with myrrh as he hung dying on a cross (Mark 15:23). This symbolism reveals the reasons for adopting and expanding the earlier oracle.

And the notion that was developed later in Christian writings, that the three Magi were kings in their respective kingdoms (as in, “we three kings of orient are”), derives from the application of Isaiah 60:3 , noted above, and Psalm 72:10-11, as the psalmist praises the King of Israel and prays, “may the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts; may all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.”

It is more likely that the Magi were astronomers, rather than kings. The word magi is the plural of the Latin word magus, borrowed from the Greek magos. This, in turn, is derived from the Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan term magâunô, which signified the religious caste into which Zoroaster was born. This was the Persian priestly caste of Zoroastrianism.

As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained a reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. Their religious practices and use of astrology has since led to a development from Magi to the English term magic. It is in this sense, of magician, that Luke uses the word magus to describe both Simon, in Samaria (Acts 8:9-13) and Elymas, on the island of Paphos (Acts 13:6-11).

So there are a lot of accretions clinging to the story in Matthew 2, about the Magi from the east visiting Bethlehem. The basic story itself is an expanded midrash on older scriptural prophecies, worked up for the purpose of telling a fine tale. (See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/17/why-the-christmas-story-is-not-history-2-luke-1-2-and-matthew-1-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/04/herod-was-infuriated-and-he-sent-and-killed-all-the-children-matt-2/)

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Landau makes further observations about the Revelation of the Magi.

The “Cave of Treasures” is mentioned also in the Syriac version of the Testament of Adam (a Christian work from the fifth or sixth century) and from there is taken up in a work which itself is entitled “The Cave of Treasures” (dated to the sixth century) and another entitled “The Book of the Bee” (from the thirteenth century). Several elements of the story of the Revelation of the Magi are found also in the Liber de nativitate salvatoris, an expansion of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew with curious features that may have originated in a very early infancy gospel.

Some aspects of the Revelation of the Magi were also passed on in summary by the anonymous author of a fifth-century commentary on the Gospel of Matthew known as the Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum. From here some elements found their way into chapter 6 of the 13th century collection of stories of the saints, known as the Golden Legend. The traditions found in the Revelation of the Magi are thus surprisingly widespread for a text that, were it not for that one manuscript, would have been lost to history.

See also https://www.apocryphicity.ca/2014/08/20/more-christian-apocrypha-updates-2-revelation-of-the-magi/ and https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/magi

A final parable from the book of origins: on sheep and goats, on judgement and righteous-justice (Matt 25; Pentecost 26A)

This Sunday, we are approaching the end of Year A, the year when we have been tracing the story of Jesus was it is reported in the book of origins, the Gospel we attribute to Matthew.

During the month of November, we have heard a series of parables–stories which Jesus tells about the kingdom of heaven. Just in case the disciples didn’t actually get the message about what it will take to enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus uses this string of parables to end this last section of his last long teaching block, as we have it reported in the book of origins.

After launching in to a dramatic depiction of the coming times—wars and famines, etc—Jesus tells four stories, one after another, each ending with an admonition to be alert, be prepared; each one ending with a dire warning about what will happen to those who are not adequately prepared. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/04/discipleship-in-an-apocalyptic-framework-matt-23-25/

A story about an unprepared slave (24:45-51) ends: “He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (24:51). To conclude the story of the ten virgins, some prepared, others unprepared (25:1-13), the final words of Jesus to those unprepared are, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you” (25:13).

At the end of the story of the talents given to various slaves (25:14-30), Jesus concludes, “From those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (25:29-30).

And towards the end of the famous parable of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46), Jesus says, “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ (25:41), and he concludes that “these will go away into eternal punishment” (25:46).

All of these dire warnings are consistent with the teachings of the Matthean Jesus, who warns about “weeping and gnashing of teeth” when he tells a story about weeds sown in a field amongst the wheat (13:42), another story about good bad fish caught in the same net (13:49), and a later story about a man who attended a wedding banquet with inappropriate dress (22:14). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/06/darkness-weeping-and-gnashing-of-teeth-the-scene-of-judgement-matt-22/

This is the same Matthean Jesus who also predicts that evildoers (a better translation would be, “those who do not live by the Law”) will be “thrown into outer darkness” (8:12), as will the poorly-dressed man at the wedding banquet (22:13) and also the slave who buried the talents that he was given (25:30).

It is the same Matthean Jesus, in the much-loved ‘Sermon on the Mount’, who tells those who talk the talk but do not walk the walk, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers [lawless ones]” (7:23). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/17/the-missing-parts-of-the-sermon-on-the-mount-matt-6-and-7/

It is the same Jesus who pronounces a series of woes upon the scribes and Pharisees, accusing them of being “hypocrites” (multiple times), children of hell (23:15), blind (23:19), neglectful of the Law (23:23), self-indulgent (23:25), full of filth (23:27) and lawlessness (23:28). He ends this series of invective denunciations with the clear condemnation: “you snakes, you brood of vipers—how can you escape being sentenced to hell [Gehenna]?” (23:33). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/26/sitting-on-the-seat-of-moses-teaching-the-law-but-they-do-not-practice-what-they-teach-matt-23/

It’s a perspective that presents us with quite a challenge!

This particular Gospel highlights and intensifies the theme of judgement. Is this something that the author of the book of origins has created, as some interpreters might suggest? My sense, on the other hand, is that even though this message is very strong at so many places in this book, the author of the book of origins gets this from the historical Jesus.

In Luke 13:28, as Jesus speaks about the narrow way, he warns his followers, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers! There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.”

That saying is a doublet, found also (in a modified form) at Matt 8:11-12. It is thus part of what is known as the “Q material”—sayings of Jesus found only in Luke and Matthew, but not in Mark, and thus hypothesised to have come from an early oral collection of sayings of Jesus (called Q, after the German Quelle, meaning source).

This saying is not unique to Jesus, however. It draws on language from a number of Psalms. In Psalm 6:8, the writer cries out: depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping. Psalm 9:17 declares that the wicked shall depart to Sheol, and Psalm 139:19 offers the prayer, O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and the bloodthirsty would depart from me. The command to the wicked to depart has good biblical warrant.

Likewise, the image of the wicked gnashing their teeth is found in Hebrew Scripture. In Psalm 35:16, lamenting the activities of “malicious witnesses” who attacks the Psalmist, the writer accuses them: they impiously mocked more and more, gnashing at me with their teeth. The same phrase appears in Psalm 112:10, where the psalmist declares that, in the face of the grace and justice demonstrated by “the righteous”, the wicked see it and are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away; the desire of the wicked comes to nothing. (There are similar descriptions of gnashing teeth at Lamentations 2:16 and Sirach 30:10.)

So Jesus stands in the tradition of the Psalms, affirming the righteous-justice exhibited by those who faithfully live by the Law, and imploring God to exercise divine justice in dealing with those who are wicked.

And alongside these Psalms, we can invoke many of the prophetic oracles, decrying the injustice and failure to live by the covenant, disregarding the commandments and statutes of the Law. Consistent with the prayers of the Psalms, the oracles of the prophets call on God to be good to God’s word and adhere to the punishments prescribed for the wicked.

Therefore, Matthew does the right and fair thing, by depicting Jesus as consistently and insistently holding the people of Israel in his time to account: live your lives in accord with righteous-justice, or be prepared to face the fate that is in store for you if you breach the covenant by ignoring the Law. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

Of course, this is destabilising and disturbing for us today. Did not Jesus establish a movement founded on love and grace? (Thank you, Paul.) Did he not carry out a ministry that was invitational and attractive, calling people to the excitement of discipleship discovery? (For some, that’s a way to read Mark.)

Surely he spent his years reaching out beyond traditional barriers, offering an inclusive vision of the kingdom, throwing open the doors of welcome to all comers? (Luke, take a bow.) And was he not the very image of God, enfleshed in our lives, speaking truth and love, offering abundant life? (That’s how John portrays him.)

Yet, for Matthew, Jesus speaks truth, calls out sin, adheres to standards, advocates for a deep righteous-justice. The perceived negativity of the attack mode, the damaging denunciation of those who fall short, is harnessed in the service of advocating the positive, affirming the heart of covenant relationship with God. It is not only the teeth-gnashing, wailing, cast-out wicked ones, that are in view for Jesus.

Rather, it is the blessing that he offers to “the slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives” (24:46). It is the affirmation of the wisely prepared virgins who were ready, who “went with him [the bridegroom] into the wedding banquet” (25:10). It is the slaves who made constructive use of the talents that they were given, who are commended with the words, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (25:21, 23).

And it is in the abundant welcome offered to “the sheep”, whose good deeds lead them to be invited, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34), and who, as “the righteous”, will inevitably experience “eternal life” (25:46).

And how is it that these people “inherit the kingdom” and experience “ eternal life”? They feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit those in prison (25:35-36).

Each of these actions, of course, is carrying out a commandment of the Law. Ezekiel 18:5-9 includes amongst actions undertaken by a righteous person who “does what is lawful and right”, the fact that such a person gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment (the same phrase is repeated in a subsequent list at Ezekiel 18:16). Similar actions are noted at Job 22:7, when Eliphaz the Temanite condemns Job from Uz with you have given no water to the weary to drink, and you have withheld bread from the hungry.

Care for those “in bonds” is noted at Psalm 70:33 and liberty for the captives is clearly part of the mission of the one anointed by the Spirit at Isaiah 61:1. Care for the stranger and their inclusion on the festivals of Israel is exhorted in the laws set forth in Deuteronomy 10:18-19, 16:11,14, and commended in Psalm 146:9. Visiting the sick is commanded in Sirach 7:35.

A larger list of such actions is canvassed at Isaiah 58:6-7, which poses the rhetorical question from God, “is not this the fast that I choose … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”.

What “the sheep” have done, is demonstrate an unflinching commitment to the way of life enjoined by the Law. They live, breathe, and offer righteous-justice in what they do.

And the kicker in this story is that “the sheep”, those who carry out these good deeds in adherence to the Law, are not drawn entirely and exclusively from the people of Israel. They are drawn from “the nations”–a phrase that is usually translated as “the Gentiles” (τά ἔθνη is translated this way, in the NRSV, at Matt 4:15, 6:32, 10:5, 10:18, 12:18,21, 20:19,25, and most famously of all, 28:19).

In this parable, the usual biblical description of Israel as “sheep” (Psalms 78:52, 95:7, 100:3; Jer 23:1, 50:6,17; Ezek 34:1-31; Micah 2:12; Zech 10:2) is turned completely on its head. Amongst the people outside of Israel, there are many who are now “the sheep”, who follow the way of righteous-justice.

So the faithful sheep are not just those within Israel who live by the Law, they also include many Gentiles, drawn from the regions surrounding Israel. They provide encouragement, they stand as role models, they live out the faith that is required to “inherit the kingdom that is prepared … from the foundation of the world” (25:34).

And they exhibit righteous-justice, the heart of the covenant, in contrast to lives which are lived without reference to the Law. There is no justice with judgement. There is no justice without righteous deeds. And righteous deeds require fidelity to the Law. Not in Matthew’s account of Jesus, and not in Hebrew Scriptures. Righteous-justice and fiersome judgement are the two sides of the one coin. We can’t have one without the other.

Belief in Jesus, as Messiah, as the authoritative Teacher of the Law, thus requires faithfulness to the ethical demands and instructions taught by Jesus—which themselves are drawn entirely from Hebrew Scriptures. The way of Jesus, according to Matthew, is the way of righteous-justice, the way of faithfulness to Torah.

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This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012). I am particularly grateful to Elizabeth for the ways in which her research and our conversations over the years have deepened my understanding of Matthew’s “parable of the sheep and the goats”.

Discipleship in an apocalyptic framework (Matt 23–25; Pentecost 23–26A)

This coming Sunday, the Gospel passage in our lectionary jumps a chapter and plunges into the very last section of the teachings of Jesus that are collected in the book of origins, which we know as we the Gospel according to Matthew. For this Sunday, and following Sundays, Jesus speaks parables which contain instructions on the form of discipleship in a situation of anxiety, expectation, and waiting.

Last Sunday we were reading the teachings of Jesus in chapter 23, about following the Law in all of life. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/26/sitting-on-the-seat-of-moses-teaching-the-law-but-they-do-not-practice-what-they-teach-matt-23/

That passage (23:1-10) begins the fifth of five teaching blocks in this Gospel: the Sermon on the Mount (5–7), instructions on mission (10), parables of the kingdom (13), guidance for life in community (18), and this teaching block, which focuses on the imminent future—the coming kingdom of heaven, which was expected to come very soon (23–25).

The lectionary jumps over chapter 24; although, to be fair, we read an excerpt from this chapter right back at the beginning of the year in which we read through Matthew’s Gospel. This chapter is often labelled as the “apocalyptic discourse” in which Jesus tells his followers what is soon to take place. By tradition, the “apocalyptic discourse” is read on the First Sunday in Advent, which is when the new year begins in the Christian calendar.

So, you can think back to what you read, heard, or said back on Sunday 1st December 2019 … or you can read on and see my take.

Matthew sets out the teachings of Jesus concerning discipleship in chapter 25, within the context of an apocalyptic view of reality that is outlined in chapter 24. This view locates the present time in relation to the ultimate end of time, when God will reveal God’s ultimate will for the world (that’s what apocalyptic is), and calls for a way of living that will ultimately show responsibility for decisions made.

What ultimate end does Matthew have in view? Each Gospel writer tends to emphasis something slightly different as the climax for the story they narrate. In Mark, the focus is on the resurrection of Jesus (Mark 14:28; 16:7). In Luke-Acts, carrying the good news throughout the Roman Empire fulfils the story of the universal Gospel (Luke 24:47–48; Acts 1:8). In John, it is eternal life which is emphasised (John 20:31).

Matthew’s Jesus has in mind the coming eschatological deliverance, a deliverance which is expected imminently and that will vindicate the community as faithful and righteous to the will of God.

Apocalyptic hope

In this way, the community of faith reflected in this Gospel is typical of one type of Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple; that of apocalyptic hope. Most of the post-70 sectarian groups express hope that God will remember his covenant with them, the faithful few of Israel, and save them; for example, 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra write that God will provide consolation for their suffering and vindicate them, whilst also punishing their enemies on the Day of Judgement (2 Baruch 6:21; 82:1–2; 4 Ezra 8:51–59; 12:34).

In these sectarian documents, the kingdom of God is eschatological is nature; it has not yet arrived on earth, though signs telling of its coming can be detected. These communities also agree that much of Israel no longer truly follows the Law of God, and that the dominant Jewish leadership is unfaithful and wicked, and that they are the ones alone representing the true Israel. Therefore, entry to the kingdom is dependent upon faithfulness to the Law as interpreted by the community.

Much of this opinion can also be found in this book of origins. In fact, the evangelist redacts his sources and shapes his material so that this eschatological end is prominent, and the author makes it clear that there are two ages: the first is the current time for the evangelist, and the second is the age to come (Matt 12:32, from Mark 3:29).

The nearness of the second age

In this book of origins, the first indication that we have of the nearness of the second age is the announcement of John the Baptist, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2). This sets the tone for the rest of the Gospel, where Jesus calls people to repent and be obedient to God’s Law, as the end-time of God’s judgement is fast approaching.

In the teachings of Jesus in this Gospel, the kingdom is imminent, but not yet arrived; however, signs of its imminence break in to the present times as a demonstration and proof of its nearness. The ministry of Jesus is set at the end of the first age; the second age will commence very shortly with the triumphant return of Jesus after his death, within the lifetime of his disciples (10:23; 16:28; 24:34).

There is no real sense in this Gospel of the notion that the kingdom had already arrived and was present on the earth, though it can be seen in the ministry of Jesus (12:28), and in the continuation of his ministry by his followers after his death. Jesus and the disciples both preach that the kingdom of heaven is near, or at hand (4:17; 7:21–22; 9:35; 10:7), but it has not yet established itself on earth.

The kingdom of heaven will be established “at the end of the age”, when the final judgement of righteous and unrighteous will take place (13:39–40, 49; 24:3). Before the coming of the Son of Man, it remains hidden and mysterious (13:31–33, 44–45), too small to be observed, but the day is coming when it will grow and become the “greatest of all things”, and the righteousness of God will triumph.

The promise of the coming age

On Jesus’ return as the Son of Man, the promised kingdom will be established for the faithful people of God. At this time, God will cleanse the earth of evil; Matthew’s Gospel emphasises the fate of the unrighteous as being the place of eternal punishment (25:46), where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:42, 49; 22:14; 25:30). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/06/darkness-weeping-and-gnashing-of-teeth-the-scene-of-judgement-matt-22/

Much of the view of the eschaton and the judgement it entails reflected in this Gospel is dependent on prophetic texts such as Ezek 32:7; Joel 2:10–11; Zeph 1:14–15; Dan 7:13; as well as parts of Trito-Isaiah (Isa 56–66) and 1 Enoch.

Matthew’s Jesus states that the exact day of these events is not known (24:42), but its arrival will be heralded by cosmic tribulations (24:7), and the Son of Man will be the judge on that day (7:21; 13:41; 16:27; 24:30–31, 44; 25:31–46), separating the righteous from the unrighteous. The righteous shall enter the kingdom with God, the unrighteous will be cast into outer darkness and fire (5:20–22; 13:40–42; 25:30, 41).

The reference to the resurrection of the saints (found only at Matt 27:52–54) strengthens the eschatological interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus as the revelation of God’s Son. Though the kingdom has not been established in its fullness, nonetheless God has broken in to the world in a way that can only be equated with the end of time.

Matthew here has Jesus drawing on the tradition of Ezekiel, a text which assumed importance in Jewish apocalyptic literature, with references to an earthquake (Matt 27:52; Ezek 37:12), the opening of graves occurs (Matt 27:52; Ezek 37:12), a resurrection (Matt 27:52; Ezek 37:12) after which the risen saints enter into the Holy city, or Israel (Matt 27:53; Ezek 37:12). This reworking of the ancient prophecy underlines the sense of hope in God, even in the face of death.

Discipleship as active waiting

The form of discipleship that is required in such an apocalyptic context is to remain faithful, awaiting the return of Jesus (the parousia). There is some evidence of concern within the community that the delay of the return of Jesus may have given rise to tension, especially if those who actually knew Jesus were dead or few in number.

The text indicates that at least some of the community expected the parousia to arrive and vindicate them very soon; its non-appearance may have affected the faith of members or influenced others to leave the community. That is the issue which undergirds the chapter of the Gospel that appears in our lectionary this Sunday, and on the two following Sundays. The parables are told to foster a sense of active waiting.

Two parables contain specific warnings about this delay (24:45–51; 25:1–13); the second of these is unique to Matthew, and we encounter it in the lectionary this coming Sunday. It indicates that active waiting involves making wise decisions, persisting tenaciously in hope for what lies in the future. The wise virgins are commended: “those who were ready went with him [the bridegroom] into the wedding banquet” (25:10). The foolish virgins are rejected by Jesus: “truly I tell you, I do not know you” (25:12).

Similar warnings occur in other parables drawn from the Q tradition: the parable of the banquet (22:1–14), which we have read some weeks back; and the well-known parable of the talents (25:14–30), which appears next Sunday, in which the master commends his two “good and trustworthy slaves” with the words, “you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (25:21,23). By contrast, the third slave is condemned as worthless: “throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:30).

These parables all advocate active waiting as the desired form of discipleship. Being faithful to the way of Jesus means being ready for his coming, prepared for the kingdom. The message is driven home by the contrasting pairs: wise virgins, foolish virgins; trustworthy slaves, worthless slave”.

Chapter 25 comes to a rousing conclusion with perhaps the most famous parable of Jesus from this Gospel, the parable of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46). The parable uses the same contrasting pair: the sheep are the righteous, the goats are the wicked, those without law.

Faithful discipleship is following the teachings of Jesus in the time of active waiting–adhering to righteous-justice in all of life. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

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This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

Sitting on the seat of Moses, teaching the Law—but “they do not practice what they teach” (Matt 23; Pentecost 23A)

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses; therefore, do whatever they teach you.” So Jesus instructs his followers, according to a teaching reported only in the book of origins, which we know by tradition as the Gospel according to Matthew.

This teaching comes at the start of a lengthy chapter (Matt 23), where Jesus does two important things. He reinforces the central significance of the Law of Moses which was taught by the scribes and the Pharisees. At the same time, he criticises the practices of those scribes and Pharisees, for again and again they fail (in the view of Jesus) to put into practice what they teach. Slightly modifying the end of verse 3 results in the familiar proverb, “practice what you preach”.

The passage set in the lectionary for this coming Sunday offers us twelves verses, which form the introductory section of this long chapter (23:1-12). It omits all that follows. There is long section of invective (23:13-33), where eight times Jesus utters his vehement criticism: “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees” (23:13, 14, 15, 16, 23, 25, 27, 29). We will come to this section later in this post.

The chapter closes with a plaintiff lament, as Jesus closes his speech: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together…but you were not willing” (23:34-39). Jesus yearned for the salvation of his people; but, being led astray by teachers who do not practice what they preach, the people are heading to their doom.

1. Affirming the Law

The first thing that Jesus does is affirm the importance of the Law which is taught by the scribes and the Pharisees. He instructs his followers to “do whatever they teach you” (23:3). Their authority is grounded in “the seat of Moses” from which they teach (23:2). Jesus speaks as a faithful Jew, holding firmly to the commandments of the Law, living in accord with the covenant relationship with God.

The Pharisees were scribes who specialised in the interpretation of Torah and in the application of Torah to daily living. In contrast to the priestly Sadducees, the Pharisees were very popular amongst the ordinary Jewish folk. This may well have been because they undertook the highly significant task of showing how the Torah was relevant to the daily life of Jewish people.

The story of Ezra, told in Nehemiah 8, gives an example of this in practice, referring especially those who “helped the people to understand the law” (Neh 8:7). Whilst the priests upheld the Torah as the ultimate set of rules for operating the Temple, the Pharisees showed how the Torah could be applied to every aspect of daily life as a Jew.

Most Jews went to the Temple only rarely—and found it to be an expensive enterprise when they got there! But in seeking guidance for daily life, the people were greatly helped by those skilled interpreters of Torah, the scribes and the Pharisees. Josephus comments that the Pharisees were usually held in high regard by the ordinary people of the day.

Since nine out of every ten persons could not read, the importance of scribes —literate, educated, and sympathetic—could not be underestimated. Whilst the Pharisees clustered around towns in Judea, the scribes were to be found in the synagogues of villages throughout greater Israel, and indeed in any place where Jews were settled.

The task of the Pharisees was to educate the people as to the ways of holiness that were commanded in the Torah. It was possible, they argued, to live as God’s holy people at every point of one’s life, quite apart from any pilgrimages made to the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Pharisees thus held sway in the synagogues, in all the places where dispersed Jews were living. Their interpretations were highly regarded amongst the people. But they stand as the chief sparring partners for Jesus, reflecting the competing claims for authoritative teaching about the Law.

2. Jesus, the Authoritative Teacher of the Law

Jesus regularly debates with the scribes and the Pharisees about their interpretations of the Law. He berates them for their failure to keep the Law in their daily lives. This chapter brings those vigorous debates to a climax.

As Matthew writes his Gospel, he intensifies the way that Jesus was in competition with the Pharisees, and takes pains to present Jesus as the one who provides the best and most accurate interpretation of the Law. We see this very clearly in this passage, where Matthew has Jesus declare, “you have only one teacher” (23:8), and then, even more pointedly, “you have one instructor, the Messiah” (23:10).

We might note that the disciples are commissioned to preach (10:7), but not to teach. They are cautioned that a “disciple is not above the teacher”, and that “it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher” (10:25). This reflects the later exhortation that the disciples only have one teacher, and that teacher is Jesus, and that the disciples are brothers, and are not to call themselves teachers (23:8–10). They are disciples (learners), not teachers (rabbis). Jesus is the only Teacher.

The motif of Jesus as the authoritative teacher of the Law has sounded throughout this Gospel. Only in this Gospel do we hear Jesus unambiguously declare that he comes to fulfil the Law (5:17-20), and then go on to provide his understanding of particular laws (“you have heard it said … but I say to you …”, 5:21-48).

See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

Indeed, in this series Jesus employs a classic method from Jewish halakhic debate. (Halakha is a Hebrew word which literally means “walk”; it is used in a metaphorical sense to indicate the way to walk in life. It almost always describes debates which focus on the interpretation of the 613 commandments found within Hebrew scriptures.) The techniques of halakhic debate were known and used at the time of Jesus. He quotes a Pharisaic interpretation (“you have heard it said”), but then places alongside it his own interpretation (“but I say”). Jesus operates as a teacher of the Law.

See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

The collection of sayings which we call “the Sermon on the Mount” ends with the affirmation that Jesus “taught as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (7:29). The instruction of Jesus to “take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (11:29) draws on the concept of “the yoke” as the teachings of a rabbi (see Mishnah, Sayings of the Father 3.5).

The parables of Jesus are offered as teachings about “what has been hidden from the foundation of the world” (13:35, quoting Psalm 78:2, a lengthy teaching psalm). And at the end of this Gospel, Jesus finally commission his disciples to “teach [the nations] to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:19).

In the book of origins, therefore, Jesus is The Authoritative Teacher, the one who instructs most accurately and faithfully in the Law, using the techniques of Jewish teachers.

3. Doing the Law

The second thing that Jesus does in the passage in the lectionary this Sunday is criticise those who teach the Law but do not (in his view) live by the Law. They say the right things, but their actions fail to bear this out—a familiar criticism in the book of origins, where Jesus taught that not everyone who says the right things will enter the kingdom, “but only the one who does the will of my Father”(7:21), and which includes a parable about “doing the will of God” as the prerequisite for entering the kingdom (21:28-32).

The following verses offer a fulsome list of the inadequacies and failures in the way that the scribes and Pharisees live: they impose heavy burdens (23:4), make public displays of their faith (5), seek the place of honour at feasts (6), and flaunt their status (7). The series of woes likewise criticises the scribes and Pharisees for keeping people out of the kingdom (23:13), praying at length (14), making converts (15), misuse of oaths (16), misdirected tithing (23), greed and self-indulgence (25), hypocrisy and lack of faithfulness to the Law (28), and hypocrisy in relation to the prophets (29-30).

Jesus is critical of those who do not keep the Law. He condemns them” “go away from you, you who are without the Law” (7:23) and says that those who dot keep the Law will be “thrown into the furnace of fire” (13:41). The end time includes “the increase of lawlessness” (24:12). And he specifically describes the scribes and the Pharisees as being “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (23:28).

Time after time in this speech, the scathing rhetoric of Jesus indicts the teachers of the Law with their failure to adhere to the Law. Eight times he says that they are hypocrites (23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 28, 29). The deduction to be drawn is clear: if those who teach the Law in the synagogues cannot be trusted, because they do not follow the Law in their lives, then whose teaching of the Law should be trusted?

It is surely the “one teacher”, the “one instructor, the Messiah” (23:8, 10).

4. Criticising the Teachers of the Law

The Jesus who is presented in this Gospel is a fearful and demanding figure. We have noted how, in his capacity as God’s Messiah, Jesus frequently promises (or threatens) judgement (5:21–26; 7:1–2; 10:15; 11:21–24; 12:36–37; 19:28–30; 21:33–44; 22:1–14; 24:29–31, 36-44, 45–51; 25:1–13, 14–30, 31–46; 26:64). Many of these declarations occur in eschatological contexts, where Jesus is warning about the punishment that is to come unless righteous-justice is followed in the present.

See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/06/darkness-weeping-and-gnashing-of-teeth-the-scene-of-judgement-matt-22/

Later in his Gospel, Matthew has Jesus intensify and personalise his rhetoric, by applying it specifically and insistently to the “scribes and Pharisees” in this collection of woes (23:13-36). If we include the woe of verse 14 (which is missing in some early manuscripts), there are eight woes in this final teaching section of the Gospel—providing a perfect counterpoint to the series of eight blessings offered by Jesus in his first substantive teaching (5:1-12, at the start of the “Sermon on the Mount”).

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

These woes, carefully shaped by Matthew out of the various traditions available to him, appear to slander the scribes and Pharisees to such an extent that they have fuelled explicit anti-Semitic acts, and contributed to the more insidious stereotyping of “Pharisaic” attitudes, throughout much of subsequent history.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/01/producing-the-fruits-of-the-kingdom-matt-21/

However, we need to read these woes in the literary and historical contexts, which can provide a different view of their purpose when first written. In antiquity, “the rhetoric of slander” was not so much a way of attacking others, but a means of establishing the self-identity of the writer’s community. It often had more to do with solidifying one’s own position, than with undermining another position.

In a 1989 article published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, Luke Johnson has demonstrated that such “rhetoric of slander” was found both within and beyond Judaism. He documents its use by Jews against Jews, most notably in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Community Rule 2:4-10, 4:9-14), but also in the Psalms of Solomon (4:1-5), in what Josephus writes about the Zealots (Jewish War 4.385-388, 5.443-4, 566, 7.260-2), and in assorted rabbinical works.

He also notes how it was used by Gentiles against Jews (book 5 of the History by Tacitus), by Gentiles against Gentiles (the Orations of Dio of Prusa, the Dissertations of Epictetus), and by Jews against Gentiles (Josephus, Against Apion 1.225-6).

Widespread use of such language mitigates against interpreting the woes of Matthew 23 in such a stringent and limiting fashion; in the context of its day, its effect was to define the identity of the Matthean community over and against the Pharisaic leaders, rather than to belittle them for the sake of spite or malice.

This series of woes culminates the debates with Pharisees which Jesus has been involved in throughout this Gospel. Each of the woes is a debate over the way in which a particular law should be applied. In this way, the woes repeat the emphasis of the Sermon on the Mount: what is most important is single-minded devotion to the principles set forth in the Law, and an intention to live by these precepts in all of life—both in actions and in attitudes.

That is what the “one teacher” conveys to his followers. That is what the “one instructor” passes on to his disciples. “Practice what you preach”, indeed!

*****

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/11/go-nowhere-among-the-gentiles-matt-105-the-mission-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins/