I figured since I was going to the holy land, I might as well read up on the bible. If I was truly committed to doing my homework, I should also have read the Koran and a more authentic translation of the Torah. But I am also visiting my girlfriend who I very much want to spend time with, so I’m just sticking to the New Testament. Full disclosure—this is the first time I’ve actually read the New Testament cover to cover, and up to this point most of my theological study has been to improve my ability to debate against Christians. So take my first pass at biblical criticism with a massive grain of salt. I also thought that the best approach would be do this piecemeal, book by book, to see how my reactions change over the course of my reading.
So here’s my reaction to the Gospel of Matthew.
This is, I am told, the gospel that was meant to be read by Jews and show that Jesus fulfilled all of the appropriate messiah prophecies. This might be why Jesus in this gospel seemed rather more wrathful than I was expecting, reiterating again and again how the non-righteous will be thrown like weeds into the fire, where there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and so on. But perhaps this is just Jesus putting on a tough face for the Jews, and the other gospels tone it down a little bit.
I was also struck by how important parables are in Jesus’s pedagogy. Of course, it’s well known that Jesus taught in parable, but I feel like it would be easier to count the number of times that Jesus didn’t respond with a story of some sort. I also got a kick out of how he teaches in parable specifically to satisfy a prophecy about how his teachings will be indecipherable to most of the people who hear it.
“Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand’ In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever hearing but never perceiving’” [Matt 13: 11-15]
I always imagined that, with divine pedagogical and rhetorical skills, Jesus would be able to present his teachings in a way that wouldn’t be lost on most people. But eh, I guess you’ve gotta fulfill what was written in Isiah.
Moreover, I think this passage sort of gets at the trouble I’ve always had with Christianity. Christ seems to inhabit a world with zero epistemic uncertainty, where one can conflate belief/comprehension and moral goodness without any awful consequences. It’s a world where, if a good person is exposed encounters Christ’s teachings, they should immediately recognize them as Truth; conversely, if one fails to find the teachings of Christ self-evident, this is damning evidence of a person’s corrupt moral character.
At least, this is the plainest interpretation of the Parable of the Sower I can think of. In the Parable of the Sower, the word of god is compared to seeds falling from a farmer’s pouch as he walks down the road. Some seeds fall on good soil (good people’s hearts), where they grow and produce much good fruit. Other seeds fall on bad soil (bad people’s hearts), where they wither and die.
My issue is that nowhere in this parable do you get the sense that the people are active in this process of fruit bearing. The teachings simply fall where they fall and grow where they grow. Absent is a sense of epistemic struggle– the sense that real people must do actual work to sort out the good teachings from the bad. The word of god simply grows in people who possess an arable constitution.
“Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (Matt 13:12)
In the gospel, there seems to be only be two sorts of people. The first sort are the good people who immediately fall in among Jesus’s devotees (such as Peter, who becomes a “fisher of men” after exchanging two words with the messiah). The second are the evil, corrupt, hypocrites, who plot Jesus’s murder. There is no liminal zone between disciple and Pharisee. No place where people can have genuine, or sincere conflict. Occasionally the disciples will fail to have complete faith, but this is presented as a moral lapse for which they are chided and ashamed, rather than a valuable stepping stone on the way to understanding. I do not believe that Jesus is condemning the uncertain when he says that “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matt 12:30). It’s more that, in the world painted by Matthew, this psychological state simply doesn’t exist.
This picture, in my view, leaves very little room for individual acts of will or moral judgment. I am not extremely familiar with the theology behind the doctrine of pre-destination, but when the idea is explained to me, it is usually grounded in a particular conception of God’s omnipotence. God alone is the agent of salvation, meaning that no act of human will can possibly sway God one way or another. God saves who he wants to save, and that is that.
To me, this argument had always seemed awfully intellectual– the sort of thing that would be developed by a career theologian, not a person turning to the bible for moral guidance. But given my reading of the gospel of Matthew, I begin to see where this view might be coming from, what with the talk of wheat and weeds, good and bad soil, separating the wheat from the chaff. The idea that the Pharisees simply might not have been among god’s elect seems, well, plausible.
There is one criteria by which Jesus claims to be able to separate good teachings from bad, but it has issues too. “Watch out for false prophets,” he says.
“They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruits you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn-bushes, or figs from thistles? […] Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire. Thus, by their fruit, you will recognize them.” [Matt 7:15-19].
As far as I can tell, this is a non-answer. If I am unable to tell a good prophet from a bad one, what makes Jesus think I’m any better at telling good metaphorical fruit from bad metaphorical fruit? What characteristics make good “fruit”, and how does one go about distinguishing good fruit from the bad?
There is one possible interpretation that resolves the non-answerness of Jesus’s answer, but it has its own set of problems. The best reading I can offer is that is that when Jesus says “fruits”, he is referring to literal, honest to god, miracles. For example, take the passage where Jesus heals the paralyzed man. In this passage, Jesus is approached by a paralyzed man, who asks to have his sins forgiven. Jesus complies. A couple of the Pharisees see this and think that Jesus is committing blasphemy, as only God has the power to forgive sins. To this, Jesus says “which is easier to say: ‘your sins are forgiven,’ or to say ‘get up and walk?’ But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” [Matt 9: 5-6] He then heals the paralyzed man.
The idea seems to be, quite explicitly, that if Jesus has the ability to heal the man’s paralysis, he also has the authority to forgive sins. By healing people, Jesus proves that he is the genuine article, and his words actually carry the authority of divinity.
Throughout the gospel, Jesus’s “authority” is evidenced by his ability to work miracles, heal the sick, expel demons, raise the dead, and so on. It is also explicitly stated that those who have faith in Jesus will share his authority and be able to work miracles of their own (tossing mountains into the ocean, smiting fig trees, and so on).
This seems like a perfectly reasonable way to answer the question “who is a legit prophet”. But it runs into problems with the fact that Christians of (presumably) good faith are not able to actually perform miracles at will. It also flies in the face of the most common explanation I’ve heard for “why god doesn’t demonstrate his existence through flagrant displays of power.”
The typical answer is that, if god did this, it would undermine people’s faith and their ability to choose him freely. However, if this was the case, then why is anyone ever allowed to see miracles? Particularly in the gospels, Jesus and his disciples were preforming dramatic miracles left and right, often (as demonstrated in Jesus’s run-in with a paralyzed man) explicitly to make a point to people who questioned his authority.
The idea that miracles are meant to be taken as evidence—even proof—of Jesus’s divinity is expounded in the events where Jesus drives out demons in the name of the Holy Spirit. The Pharisees see Jesus drive out demons, and they assume that he is doing it by Beelzebul, the prince of demons. Jesus asserts that it would be impossible for demons to be driven out by demons, as that would make the house of Satan “divided against itself” (and a house divided against itself cannot stand), and then says “If it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” [Matt 12:28].
Furthermore, I think the strongest evidence for the interpretation of “Miracles as evidence” comes in the previous chapter, says to a town that failed to repent: “If the Miracles that were performed for you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.” [Matt 11:20]. I’m not sure how anybody reconciles passages like this with the general principle “performing blatant and obvious miracles undermines faith”. Maybe Paul will explain it later…
This was my major beef with the gospel of Matthew. There are a couple of other incidents that I found funny or random. My favorite was probably the bit in Matt 16 titled “The yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees” when Jesus had to explain (in what I imagine to be a very exasperated voice) to his disciples what a metaphor was [Matt 16: 5-12].
Also, that poor fig tree. What did it ever do to you?