Saturday, March 01, 2008

An Observation On The Gospels - Matthew

Last year, when I was perusing through the Gospels while doing research for a post, an interesting idea jumped out at me. The Gospels often read like novels written from the perspective of an omniscient third person narrative.

Take the first Gospel in the New Testament, the Book of Matthew. After spouting out the alleged genealogy of Jesus, Matthew gives us the conception of Jesus from the perspective of Joseph. And as an aside, wouldn't it have made life a lot easier for Mary and Joseph if she was impregnated by the Holy Spirit after they had gotten married?

After the appearance of the angel to Joseph, the story abruptly cuts to the Magi from the east asking where is the King of the Jews who was born? The tale then shifts to the perspective of King Herod and his court. Herod tells the Magi to report back to him the location of the child, whereupon the story segues to the point of view of the Magi. And in another aside, wouldn't someone as ruthless as King Herod have sent one of his own men to accompany or at the very least follow the Magi rather than relying on a bunch of strangers?

Getting to the point now, Biblical literalists believe that the Gospels are a reliable historical account of the events depicted therein, based on eyewitness testimony compiled shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus. But if one considers that the episode of Herod and the Magi took place shortly after the birth of Jesus, and that Jesus lived some thirty something years, who in the 4th decade C.E. was around to remember the Magi? Keep in mind that the years following the crucifixion were supposed to be a period in which the followers of Jesus were being actively persecuted. So, in such a climate, who would have been able go around trying to find, let alone interview, still living members of the court of Herod?

Furthermore, the Magi episode (and by the way, Matthew is incredibly vague about their origin) ends with the Magi being warned in a dream not "not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route." Who did the Magi tell that they had this dream? It is not until after the Magi depart that an angel appears to Joseph and tells them to flee into Egypt. It is possible that the Magi could have told Joseph about their dream before leaving, but then why would it then be necessary for an angel to appear separately to Joseph?

Likewise, after Herod dies, an angel tells Joseph in a dream that it is now safe to return home. You would think that when someone as infamous as King Herod dies, the news would not take to long to travel to Egypt where Jesus and his family supposedly resided. One gets the sense that Joseph was incapable of doing anything without an angel telling him what to do! One hopes that the angel was at least able to give Joseph some decent investment tips.

Matthew then introduces the reader to John the Baptist. We get a vivid description of how he dressed and what he ate. Suffice it to say that his taste in clothing and diet left much to be desired. John is set up as preparing "the way for the Lord." John and Jesus have their bit meeting where John baptizes Jesus. There is a brief passage from the viewpoint of Jesus, where "he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him."

Then Matthew switches completely to Jesus as he is tempted by the devil for 40 days. The Temptation story describes the interactions between Jesus and the devil from a third party perspective. But unless we are to believe that Jesus had a companion with him, how could anyone know what happened? It is possible of course that the real Jesus could have been sitting around a campfire with some of his disciples one night and told them, "One time I was out in the desert being tempted by the devil, and it kinda went like this..." Even so, with many years passing between when the author of Matthew first heard the story either from Jesus or from a third party, much detail would likely be forgotten.

Skipping ahead a little, Jesus has begun his minstry. Matthew then devotes the next three chapters to the famous Sermon on the Mount. The fact that it is long and yet apparently remembered in such detail raises a question for me. Was the sermon transcribed by someone? That would seem to be the best way for the sermon to be reproduced so faithfully years later in Matthew. Perhaps it might even have been Jesus' standard stump speech at the time, one that he would tell other crowds in other locations. Maybe the primary draft of the sermon was written out before Jesus delivered it, and he would add embellishments to it depending on the audience he addressed.

On the other hand, if the sermon was not transcribed, then Matthew has some problems. If the Sermon on the Mount was delivered just once to one particular crowd of people and was not transcribed, then it would not be possible to faithfully reproduce it years later from memory. The author of Matthew would have had to track down people who heard the sermon, and try to hammer out a reproduction of it based on where various eyewitnesses were in agreement. Even so, it would still not be a 100% word for word transcript of the sermon.

After the Sermon on the Mount, the narration in Matthew continues almost seamlessly. It is almost as if the reader is following the activities of Jesus in real time; where he goes, who he interacts with, as if someone were trying his best to record the events as they happened. Miracles and casting out of demons aside, the middle section of Matthew rings most true to me as representing genuinely authentic eyewitness testimony. Again, if ministry of Jesus were a serious affair, it probably should be expected that Jesus would have a scribe amongst his entourage to record the preachings of Jesus and who he interacted with.

Then we get to the Transfiguration in Chapter 17. Elijah and Moses are described as appearing before Peter, James and John. The three even offer to build shelters for Moses and Elijah. But how could they know it was Moses and Elijah? There were no pictures back then to refer to. Elijah had been dead for centuries, and Moses, if he existed at all in history, had been dead for over a millennium. If my great-great grandfather were to suddenly appear before me, I would not have the slightest clue who he was. Matthew does not report that a voice thundered down from heaven informing the apostles that "here are Moses and Elijah!"

Matthew loses its Jesus perspective in Chapter 26. In lines 57 through 68, Matthew covers the trial of Jesus by the Sanhedrin. Now, with the disciples scattered, and Peter sitting outside in the courtyard, from whom did Matthew get his picture of what went on at the trial? Apologists assure us that the Gospels were written close to the events that they describe, while at the same time reminding us that the climate for the followers of Jesus in the wake of his crucifixion was dangerous. So where did Matthew get his information from? It is not like today where you can go to a courthouse and read the trial transcripts. Matthew would have had to rely on eyewitnesses to the trial. But how reliable were those witnesses and who would they have been?

After the trial, Matthew switches briefly to Peter, sitting out in the courtyard and getting challenged by others in the crowd accusing him of being a follower of Jesus. Interestingly, his accusers all appear to be women. That matters to me, because Apologists defend the account of the Resurrection by claiming that if the story were fake, the writer would not have had women find the Empty Tomb, because their testimony would not be believed. Yet, here, outside of where Jesus was on trial for his life, it was women who were publicly accusing Peter. So much for the testimony of women not being taken seriously!

After the Peter episode, Matthew then gives us the end of Judas. Matthew 27:3 describes Judas as being "seized with remorse" and describes how he tries to return the money to the chief priests. Again, who did Matthew get this information from?

After Jesus is condemned to death, Pilate's "soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. 'Hail, king of the Jews!' they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again." (Matthew 27:27-30). This scourging appears to have been done out of the sight of any Jewish people, so again we are left with the question of where Matthew gets his information from. Who told him what happened in the Praetorium?

After the Crucifixion, Matthew gives us a scene where the chief priests and Pharisees meet with Pilate to make arrangements to guard the tomb of Jesus. Here is another scene where neither Matthew nor anyone else in the inner circle of Jesus could possibly have been a witness. Same with the guards reporting to the chief priests the disappearance of Jesus. These are interactions that would have taken considerable effort to obtain from actual eyewitnesses in a climate of persecution during the years after the Crucifixion. It was common for the day for historians (look at the works of any major Roman historian) to invent scenes and dialogue. The author of Matthew could easily have contrived the scenes to faithfully represent what he imagined the Pharisees, Pilate and the temple guards might have said.

In conclusion, while the bulk of Matthew is written from the perspective of a possible eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, perhaps an itinerant scribe, there are significant portions at the beginning and the end of Matthew that are at least to me obviously contrived or fanciful additions to the story.


Anonymous said...


The Jolly Nihilist said...

Your scholarship, as ever, is quite impressive.

Cheers for an even-better-than-usual contribution.