November 23, 2017

‘Aha, your Scriptures don’t match up – your beliefs are bogus’

PHOTO: Patrick Fore

Last time, we noted that some gospel passages contain identical sayings of Jesus, suggesting that these easy-to-remember nuggets are probably being handed down verbatim from Jesus himself by the community of eyewitnesses who remember him.

In contrast, we can also see real variations in the testimony of the gospels both in terms of what different Evangelists choose to report and the words in which they are reported.  Variations are seen, for instance, in the Beatitudes.  Matthew, writing to a Jewish community and striving to make the case that he is the Jewish Messiah, is therefore eager to liken Jesus to a New Moses, and shows us a Jesus who goes up a mountain (like Moses on Sinai) to say:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Mt 5:3–12)

Luke, in contrast, presents extremely similar, yet different, material with Jesus standing on a “level place” to deliver it:

Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger.
Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets. (Lk 6:20–26)

Totally Biblical: The moment you realise that the text is far too small for you to read. PHOTO: Ben White

These different texts are why it is unlikely that Matthew and Luke are simply copying from each other with the Ask Seek Knock passage we looked at last time.  If so, why doesn’t the copier copy here as well?  It appears rather that they are drawing from a common source, but also a source that has different ways of rendering and combining the sayings of Jesus.  

Some of that is no doubt due to the fact that they have different audiences and want to get across different messages.  But it is also due to the fact that it is very likely that Jesus himself changed and used different materials as he preached to different audiences the same body of teachings many times while he wandered about the Holy Land.  So it is quite possible that both versions of the Beatitudes were spoken by Jesus and that evangelists are offering paraphrases or “best memory” versions as they were handed down by the apostles.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of the fact that the gospels are “living memory” accounts of eyewitnesses is seen in the narrative of the Institution of the Eucharist.  Here is the central rite of the entire Christian tradition.  The whole life of the Church revolves around it.  Unlike the parables or the teachings preserved in the Sermon on the Mount and similar passages found in Mark and Luke, the Institution Narratives record things spoken one time by Jesus.  And yet those words, so central to the whole subsequent life of the Church, are recorded slightly differently in the first three gospels:

“Take, eat; this is my body.” (Matthew 26:26–27)

“Take; this is my body.” (Mark 14:22)

“This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19).

Can you handle the nuance? Acceptable source variation for non-religious texts. PHOTO: Elana de Soto

Some postmoderns, uniquely paranoid about the gospels in distinction from all other eyewitness testimony, insist that these minor differences mean the whole story is false.  But this is like saying that because some witnesses reported four shots at Dealey Plaza while others reported three, that means that John F Kennedy never existed and was never shot in Dallas.

The sane thing, when you have witnesses so close in their testimony, is to assume that something rather than nothing happened and to take the massive consensus of the witnesses as evidence that Jesus did, in fact, consecrate the Passover bread as his body on the night he was betrayed just as the whole of the apostolic Churches everywhere and at all times have always testified.

So the gospels, while certainly reporting the truth of real events, are not overly obsessed with giving us a digital recording.  They “faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven“, but they do so in accordance with the canons of accuracy of first century Jewish and Mediterranean culture and they do so with the purpose of meeting the spiritual and theological situations of their particular audiences.

So Luke, for instance, emphasizes the universality of Jesus’ saving mission in multiple ways.  Where Matthew traces Christ’s lineage back to Abraham, Luke traces it to Adam (Luke 3:38).  He records Jesus’ remarks about the mission of the prophets to Gentiles (Luke 4:24-27).  And, of course, he writes the Book of Acts, chronicling the spread of the gospel to the Gentile world, including himself, the only Gentile writer of the New Testament.

Matthew, in contrast, is speaking to a Jewish audience in Judea. He therefore takes pains to make the case that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and likens him to (among other people) Moses as well as other Old Testament figures such as David.  He divides his gospel into five “books” bookended by the Infancy Narrative and the Passion Narrative.  Why?  Because the Torah of Moses is divided into five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).  

And, most importantly for our consideration of the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite Woman, Matthew tells his disciples to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:6) in their first preaching mission and repeats to the Canaanite Woman that he is only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 15:24).

Of which more next time.

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