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Matthew’s Gospel: Storytelling as Craft

25 February 2009

It will be a while before qb exhausts all of the debts he owes to N. T. Wright through his The New Testament and the People of God.  This morning, the debt centers on the gospel attributed to Matthew.  Undoubtedly many people through the ages have picked up on what qb has only today recognized:  the Temple is not merely one of many themes in Matthew; it is perhaps the central one.


The art of storytelling hinges on themes, motifs, character development, tension, and climax.  The great stories begin with hints of tension, vague contours of things that are not right, the barest notions of conflict without or within.  

Matthew begins his narrative instead with bland, historical facts, of the sort we used to have to learn in American history:  who lived before whom, who begat whom, by whom and when.  Ancestry:  it’s interesting if your name’s in it, but somebody else’s genealogy?  C’mon.

Unobtrusively, Matthew touches on a couple of names buried in the list.  This morning during our study of Matthew 1, we did a little bit of word association:

Solomon:  riches, wisdom, many wives, a tragic story, the fruit of conspiracy, rape, murder, and coverup, vanity.

Zerubbabel:  governor of the remnant, signet ring, Haggai and Zechariah, Ezra, Joshua the high priest, return from Babylonian exile.


Back in the day, as the Israelites fled Pharaoh into the wilderness of Sinai, Jehovah spoke to them through Moses and gave them a visible symbol of his abiding presence among them.  When they traveled, they had to guide them a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  But when they paused in on spot for a while, they set up a tent designed by craftsmen Bezalel and Oholiab, a tent made with hands, a tent to surround the holy of holies.  It was the portable centerpiece of nomadic life.


David wanted to build a house for God, but he had too much blood on his hands, so God gave that job to his son Solomon.  It was a magnificent structure, high atop Mount Zion in Jerusalem so that everyone could see it from a distance.

Nebuchadnezzar swept into Jerusalem in 587 BCE and destroyed it, carrying a big chunk of the Hebrew nation into exile.


Babylon’s empire didn’t last.  Belshazzar, a later Babylonian king, saw the handwriting on the wall during a huge feast, and the translation essentially meant:  here come the Persians!  It was the Persians who started the return of the Hebrews to Jerusalem.  But there was no longer a Temple, so Ezra and Zerubbabel got the people moving.

Unfortunately, the new Temple wasn’t much to look at.  The elders of the Hebrews who had seen the Temple before Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it wept and wailed.  One gets the impression that the new Temple was but a shadow of the original, and who can get fired up about that?  So it got halfway finished, and then the people got bored and quit building.  The prophets Haggai and Zechariah drew the short straws and were given the unenviable job of goading the laggards into finishing up.  “Who has despised the day of small things?”  Zechariah asked them.  Haggai used the guilt trip:  “Is it right that you should dwell in your paneled houses while My house lies desolate, saith the Lord?”

By 517 BCE, the prophets’ carrots and sticks had gotten the job done.  It wasn’t Solomon’s Temple, but at least it was complete; the Hebrews had a place for God to dwell in their midst, a place where the priests could offer sacrifices, a headquarters for the great feasts.  Around seventy more years, and Nehemiah had finished the city walls.


The next 450 years of Hebrew history, as we’ve noted in previous posts, were pretty turbulent in geopolitical and military terms.  By the time Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, the Macedonians were in charge of Jerusalem.  Alexander didn’t have a clear successor, so his empire was divided up, primarily between his subordinate officers Ptolemy and Seleucus, who took control of Egypt and Syria, respectively.  The Ptolemies held Jerusalem for a while, but the Seleucids eventually gained the upper hand, and in 167 BCE, Antiochus IV Epiphanes marched into the Temple, destroyed its religious symbols, and set up his pagan deities.  Our word for it:  desecration.  The message to the Hebrews was equally clear:  your God is no longer with you.


Epiphanes’ straw broke the camel’s back, and the Maccabees took matters into their own hands, spinning up a violent revolution and driving the Seleucid rulers out of Jerusalem.  The next 150 years witnessed a sequence of rulers deriving from the Maccabees and periodically conflating the functions of high priest and king.  The dynasty, whose members got pretty full of themselves, was known as the Hasmonean dynasty.  For all its many faults, the Hasmonean dynasty was a symbol of the Hebrews’ rejection of any pagan ownership of the Mount Zion.

Rome finally put an end to it and installed a non-Hebrew as the local caretaker-king.  He was a descendant of Esau, a clever stroke of contempt for the descendants of Jacob.  His name was Herod.


The Hebrews never quite rid themselves of the revolutionary fervor.  To be sure, some, like the Sadducees, laid it aside, thinking that if they could ingratiate themselves to the Romans, they’d be better off.  But revolt was seldom far below the surface.  The Essenes withdrew to a life of private piety in the wilderness; the Sicarii (remember Masada?) and Zealots kept their weapons close at hand; the Pharisees tried to establish a Jewish nation as a sort of exile-in-place, thumbing their noses at Caesar and the whole pagan thing.

How does the Idumean king Herod keep the revolutionaries at bay?  One answer, and the one he ultimately chose, was to co-opt them, throw them a bone.  He built them a pretty nice Temple.  The Sadducees probably saw that as a validation of their strategy.


But Herod’s strategy never got all of the Hebrews on board with Rome, and several more little rebellions bubbled up.  About thirty-five years after Jesus was crucified, Caesar had had his fill with these pesky troublemakers, and he sent a general named Titus to the gates of Jerusalem.  In 70 CE, the Temple was again reduced to rubble, this time for good.  The message, as always, was clear:  the Jews’ god was out of sight, out of mind.  Caesar took his place, or was supposed to.


So:  Temple = God is with us.  

No Temple = God is not with us.  God is absent.  God has abandoned us and moved on.


It’s hard to say when Matthew wrote his account of Jesus.  Some say that because Matthew never mentioned the destruction of the Temple, there’s no way his gospel could have been written after 70 CE.  Surely such a Jewish catastrophe would have been mentioned in a gospel written to the Jews.

Others say that the absence of direct references to 70 CE is a literary choice grounded in empathy.  There are plenty of oblique references to it, and the Jews would have known what Matthew was talking about without having to have their noses rubbed in it.

Ockham’s Razor probably argues for the former position, but for what it’s worth, qb finds the latter slightly more compelling.


Assuming Matthew was written after 70 CE to comfort the Palestinian Jews, it’s fascinating to consider the way Matthew begins and ends his gospel.  The Temple may be gone, but…

An angel of the Lord appeared to [Joseph] in a dream and said, “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:  “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

Matthew 1:20-23 (NRSV)


“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 age.”

Matthew 28:19-20 (NRSV)


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