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Matthew’s Tendencies (4)

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Material in red = Mark .. in blue =   Q   .. in green = Special Matthew .. in fuchsia = Special Luke


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Matthew’s Tendencies (1) .. §  Jewishness .. Torah as Obligatory .. Fulfillment of Scripture .. “Kingdom of Heaven” .. Exclusivism .. § Universalism .. § Anti-Pharisaism
Matthew’s Tendencies (2) .. § Heightening of End-of-Time Expectation .. § Heightening of the Miraculous  
Matthew's Tendencies (3) .. § Theological Tendency: Toward a Higher Christology .. § Toward the Idealization of the Apostles
Matthew’s Tendencies (4) .. § Popular Anecdotal Material .. § Concluding Observations



  §  Popular  Anecdotal Material

More than either of the other two synoptic gospels, Matthew contains units of narrative material found only in this gospel which, when taken as a group, might be described as popular anecdotes which verge on the legendary. 

     1. There is the curious narrative of the Temple Tax, in 17:24-27. 

24When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?”  25He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?”  26When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free.  27However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

Interestingly, Jesus appears to concede the payment of the tax—not in principle, for Christian “royalty” would be exempt from the tax; but for expediency, to avoid offence. But one wonders: is the reader supposed to be edified, or entertained, or taught the virtue of expediency over principle, or impressed with the prescience of Jesus? 

Is there a message here for Matthew’s Christian Jewish readers—that Christian Jews need to carry their share of the load to maintain the traditional cultus of the Jerusalem temple, even though as Christians they might consider themselves exempt from the obligation? and that Peter, known as the apostle to the circumcision, is front and center as the implied mediator of this ruling to Christian Jews of the dispersion?

     2. In reporting the episode of Jesus’ arrest, as he is being defended  by some one [identified in John 18:10-11 as Peter] who cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave, Matthew renders Jesus’ rebuke as follows (26:52-54):

52Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”

These bits of Matthean material spliced into otherwise Markan material are varied: a piece of prudential wisdom about the consequences of resorting to violence; a reminder that heavenly intervention could rescue him if he wished; and a scripture fulfillment text typical of Matthew.

     3. Matthew is the only gospel to tell about the fate of Judas. What happened to Judas, after he betrayed Jesus? Early Christians were curious, just as we would be curious. An anecdote survives in Matthew (27:3-10), which describes the traitor’s remorse and his return of the thirty pieces of silver which were his reward: 

4[Judas says], “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” [The chief priests and the elders] said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. . . . 7[The chief priests used the money] to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. . . . [It is called the Field of Blood.]

Then Matthew concludes with one of his typical prophecy fulfillment quotations, from Jeremiah. We have no way to decide between the merits of this story and the one in Acts 1:18-19, where it is told that Judas (and not the chief priests) bought a field with his money, “. . . and falling headlong [or swelling up], he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” Acts agrees that it is called Field of blood, and adds a fulfillment prophecy from Psalms.

     4. Pilate’s wife is the subject of a brief reference in Matthew 27:19.

Besides, while [Pilate] was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream.”

From an authoritative source? palace gossip? informed speculation? legend building? It is difficult to say.

     5. Pilate is involved in another anecdote found only in Matthew (27:24-25), which apart from its appeal to readers’ curiosity has tragically generated immense and quite irrational anti-semitism.

24So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!

Matthew could not have known what a mass of suffering for his people over so many centuries would result from the inclusion of this anecdote in his gospel.


     6. Matthew’s report of events accompanying Jesus’ expiration is puzzling. (And we note that Luke takes the liberty of placing the rending of the curtain before Jesus expires, rather than after.)

Matthew 27:51-53

Mark 15:38

Luke 23:45

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 

And the curtain of 
the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.

45[During the darkness between noon and three, and while the sun’s light failed,] the curtain of the temple was torn in two.
The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.     

An earthquake: appropriate to accompany a momentous event, as in Matthew’s report of an earthquake at Jesus’ resurrection? Bodies of the saints: the Jewish dead, or Christian Jews? Resurrection appearances of these saints: certainly speculative, to say the least. An anecdote for edification? Uncertain.

     7. We now consider anecdotes concerning guards at Jesus’ burial and resurrection. In Matthew 27:62 – 28:4, we have a somewhat extended narrative concerning security measures at the tomb.

[27] 62The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” 66So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.
[28] 1After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb [ = Mark 16:1]. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. . . . 11While [the women] were going [to tell the disciples], some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 12After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.

Concluding remarks: Popular Anecdotes


It is plausible that the anecdotes we have identified, including the burial-resurrection anecdote just quoted, circulated in the community where “Matthew” was active (possibly, Antioch). 


It is difficult to say how many of these stories might have reached the author by way of Christian Jews who were refugees from the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, and to what extent he was responsible for certain details. 


It is more likely that this material came to him orally rather than coming to him  in written sources. 


It is possible that much of the material in the birth narratives (Matthew 1:18 – 2:23) reached him in the same way.


While (1) quite a bit of Matthew’s special material is of exceptionally high quality, including material in the Sermon on the Mount, and some of the parables, (2) it may also be true that he incorporated material of lesser historical value and of undistinguished theological substance, with little to contribute to Christian spirituality; the popular anecdotes which have been considered in this section probably fall into the latter category.



We shall leave open the possibility that Matthew has in places succeeded in retaining or restoring some of the original Jewishness of Jesus (as in the use of “Kingdom of Heaven”), and that in other places he may have Judaized his portrait of Jesus, making the result more conservative than Jesus

bulletThe two decades of Christian Judaism in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. were not a happy time. Christian Judaism was in retreat. Gentile Christianity was flourishing in congregations of Antioch, and elsewhere. Christian Jews were no longer welcome in the synagogues of Antioch. The Second Coming had not come. Torah observance in Jewish Christian congregations may have been lax, being relativized by the dangerous undertoe of Pauline Christianity. The apostles were dead. The vigorous leadership of James was only a memory, and there was no one to take his place. Meanwhile, the Pharisaic movement was alive and well, the only surviving Jewish party after the disaster of 70, rallying the troops, making their Judaism the norm for all Jews, and crossing land and sea to make converts.
bulletHow intentional the author of Matthew was in laying out his program we cannot say. Whether conscious or unconscious, the program produced results, though not perhaps the ones the author might have anticipated. The days of Christian Judaism were numbered, and his gospel could only delay its disappearance. But casuistry has been nourished by the gospel (most notably, and deplorably, in cases of divorce). Millenarianism has found encouragement. Petrine primacy, perhaps originally intended to perpetuate the influence of the great apostle to the circumcision (as over against the great apostle to the uncircumcision), in later centuries would become the unifying (and dividing) principle in hierarchical (and ironically, often anti-Semitic) Christianity.



Revised February 15, 2003


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