Sunday, 12 April 2015

Matthew's Gospel

I have been re-reading the Gospel of Matthew - and, for the first time, felt for myself a sense of its overall structure and methods.

My impression is of a text mainly composed of multiple memories about Christ and of what Christ said and did - probably taken verbatim and little altered. The effect is of multiple 'voices' and the author invisible.

The transitions between sources are not smoothed, the context and interpretation are seldom clarified. My inference is that the author regarded his sources as sacred, and was too modest or scrupulous to add or subtract - but satisfied himself with simply arranging the material in the best chronology he could.

The result is an aphoristic style: powerful, detached - and at times I could not understand the aphorisms, and they seemed to clash - always in situations where the context of the sayings and doings was non-obvious. 

Of the synoptic Gospels, the impression was that this was the one in the rawest and least-edited state; with advantages from that of less distortion, and also with a greater-than-usual proneness to error if using the 'proof text' method of reading the Bible a verse at a time.

What comes across with great clarity is the importance of Jesus's strong claim to literal Kingship (i.e. earthly leadership) of the Jews via his adopted father Joseph

There is throughout an overwhelming sense of Jesus's immense and formidable personal authority - his claim on the throne by descent and fulfilment of prophecies, his greatness as a scholar and debater - superior to all other Rabbis, and the extraordinary events of his death and resurrection with multiple prophecies being fulfilled and multiple signs that some great thing had just happened (including resurrections of other people).

And, as so often, I felt again the importance of John the Baptist - whose spiritual authority seems to have been so great; and therefore whose endorsement of Jesus as the Christ seems to have been yet another vital strand in the interlocking of evidence that here was the Messiah.



Joel said...

I have been doing the same. My main reading this week has been the Republic, but that's still a strain for me. My break reading has been Matthew. Unlike Plato, the Gospels are (all) in very simple and easy-to-understand Greek -- and are all the more powerful for it.

I agree with almost all of what you write about Matthew, but I will add my protest to say that Mark is by far the rawest and most "eyewitness" Gospel. I would document my reasoning, but I think that C.S. Lewis said much the same thing somewhere (and better than I could).

Bruce Charlton said...

@Joel - Glad to have your confirmations.

The reason I said Matt was rawest is that I have heard Mark read straight through as a public performance - by my brother, indeed - and it makes a good 'story'; suggesting to me that it was to some extent created as a story.

wrt eye-witness accounts, John is the one which is most obviously written by a participant; but I imagine written not immediately, but from a later maturity and wisdom. (If you believe, as I do, that the Apostle John is still alive and active, then the Gospel could have been written considerably later.)

One would certainly not want to lack any of the Gospels or any part of the New Testament! - but the essence of Christianity is in John, and probably if nothing else existed about Christ except John's Gospel, that would be enough.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I recently tabulated the scripture citations in 37 volumes of the writings of early Church Fathers (see the spreadsheet here), and Matthew is the most cited book (12.7% of all citations), with Psalms (11.8%) and John (10.4%) close behind. 1 Corinthians, Luke, and Romans form a second tier (around 6% each), with Acts, Isaiah, Genesis, and 2 Corinthians rounding out the top 10.

(If we look at scripture citations from LDS General Conferences, 8 of the top 10 are the same. Revelation and Hebrews also make the LDS top 10, while Romans and 2 Corinthians do not.)

Mark is by far the "least important" (or most neglected?) gospel. Of citations from the four gospels, 41% are from Matthew, 33% from John, 20% from Luke, and under 6% from Mark.

These calculations were inspired by my receiving a copy of "the New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs." I thought it odd that someone would think Psalms and Proverbs were the most essential OT books (rather than, say, Genesis and Exodus, or Isaiah). It turns out that Psalms is indeed the most-cited OT book by far -- a full 35% of all OT citations, and second only to Matthew in the whole Bible. Psalms is cited three times as much as its nearest OT competitors, Isaiah and Genesis, and nearly 7 times as much as Proverbs (which is in fifth place, after Exodus).

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Very interesting.

I presume the relative focus on parts of the Bible would be different at different points in Christian history - with the Epistles probably coming through strongly at the Reformation, etc. e.g. The traditional Church of England services have a very strong emphasis on the Epistles, almost as much as the Gospels. I have heard several Protestants say they regard Romans as the single most important book of the Bible

The Catholic emphasis on the Psalms is very strange to a modern Christian - in monasteries the Psalter is sung through every week (or two if there are four services a day) - and in the traditional CoE every month, spread between morning and evening prayer - which means two or three Psalms per service. The Psalms are therefore seldom taught or analysed or discussed (there isn't time!), they are simply chanted again and again and again.

Sometimes modern evangelicals use Mark as the introduction to the gospels for new Christians (in small booklets, modern language) - another modern first time Bible reading scheme I have heard is to read LAGER - Luke, Acts, Genesis, Exodus, Revelation.

I suppose the emphasis depends on the contemporary controversies, or the contemporary focus. Those like me who regard Love as the primary distinctive Christian metaphysical teaching would, I think, tend to focus on John's Gospel and first epistle. John was Tolkien's favourite.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Well, the citations I've tabulated span about 800 years, and what impressed me is just how little the relative focus on different books changed in that time. Matthew is in the top 10 in every one of the 37 volumes I looked at; Psalms makes the top 10 in 36 of them; John and 1 Corinthians, in 35; Luke and Romans in 33.

Mark has been emphasized recently as the oldest of the gospels and therefore the one likely closest to the "historical Jesus." Both Matthew and Luke incorporate material from Mark, which is probably why Mark is so little cited; almost everything in Mark can be found in Matthew and/or Luke as well, and in better Greek.

The LAGER reading plan means reading 17% of the Bible (in terms of word count in the KJV); the number of patristic citations from that portion of the Bible is also 17%. If instead you read Psalms, Matthew, Luke, John, Romans, and 1 Corinthians, you'd cover a similar number of words (16% of the Bible), but 54% of patristic citations come from those books.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - BTW I would not want it assumed that I personally recommend LAGER! I do not. Indeed I do not have any recommended plan, and I do not know the Bible comprehensively enough to have one.

I would say that the PMLJR1C plan is more-or-less in line with an Eastern Orthodox approach - although the idea of learning Christianity from reading the Bible is not itself in line with the Eastern Orthodox way of life. However, that Orthodox way is itself now extinct since it depends on an Orthodox Monarchy - it went extinct in 1917 and the tradition was broken.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Re. Protestant focus on the Epistles, I don't really know any large corpus of Protestant writings to check, but I did look at the citations in Calvin's Institutes. His citations are 37% OT, 18% gospels, 41% epistles. (In contrast, the Fathers cite 33% OT, 31% gospels, 30% epistles; the Mormons, 32% OT, 35% gospels, 23% epistles.)

His top 10 books are Psalms, Romans, John, Matthew, 1 Corinthians, Isaiah, Acts, Ephesians, Hebrews, and Luke. (Fathers: Matthew, Psalms, John, 1 Corinthians, Luke, Romans, Acts, Isaiah, Genesis, 2 Corinthians. Mormons: Matthew, John, Isaiah, Luke, Revelation, Genesis, Acts, 1 Corinthians, Psalms, Hebrews.)

Note that the Mormons are closer in focus to the Fathers than either is to Calvin. This is consistent with the Mormon claim to be a restoration of primitive Christianity rather than a branch of Protestantism.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas And (as you know) when Joseph Smith 'translated' the Bible - ie paraphrased, selected and amplified the Authorized Version - it may be significant that the only part he finished was Matthew. Matthew again!

Joel said...

To put things into Charltonian terms, Jesus fits into different archetypes in Matthew versus Mark. In Mark, Jesus is the the Chosen One, the Hero. In Matthew, he is the Teacher, the Wizard. The treatment of Jesus through Mark is dripping with excitement and adventure. He is named as the Chosen One at baptism. He is driven into the wilderness by the spirit to fight Satan. He is caught in the Garden just as he realizes the risk and tells the disciples "Wake! See, my betrayer is here!" And even as he speaks, Judas comes to betray him.

In Matthew, these elements are modified a great deal. Judas' betrayal is less about plot and more about prophecy. The motivations of all of the above scenes are changed in Matthew. In Mark, Jesus has come with Good News, in Matthew he comes to preach the Kingdom. The differences are not subtle.

The different treatment of the resurrection accounts fit into all of this very well: "I go ahead of you into Galilee (Hero)" versus an on-screen resurrection.

It would also be reasonable to examine the different ways that Jesus inspires his female disciples in each of the Gospels. I think that the emotional milieu is rather different.

Luke's revision of Matthew and Mark does not substantially revise Matthew's narrative, and the additional material that he has mostly buttresses it. You do begin to glimpse some of what will be in John with Luke's stories of the Good Samaritan and the Road to Emmaus. In John, Jesus is most refined version of the Wizard archetype possible: the Sage.

I mean all of this, of course, in Tolkien's mode of talking about the gospels. To quote him:

"The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic,* beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe.

* The Art is here in the story itself rather than in the telling; for the Author of the story was not the evangelists."

Read correctly -- ie., not buried under too much theology and liturgy -- these are extraordinary powerful and moving stories. Someone needs to make four movies, each one narratively true to a different one of the Gospel accounts (instead of the current practice of mashing them all up into a single story). It might teach Christians how to read their Bibles.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Actually, I don't think anyone knows how much of his "translation" Joseph Smith would have considered to be "finished." He went through the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation and was ready to publish it as early as 1833, but I believe he was continually tinkering with and adding to his translation right up until his death.

Matthew's special significance in the JST is not that it is the only book he finished, but that part of Joseph Smith's version of Matthew has been canonized by the CJCLDS, a distinction it shares only with Genesis (portions of which were canonized as the Book of Moses).

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Correction accepted, I didn't know that.

@Joel - Excellent points!

ajb said...

It would make sense to create a new selective 'Bible' with just the PMLJR1C, say. I'm guessing such a thing exists. The current Bible ordering makes no sense for most readers.

I make an attempt at working out some of these issues at a high level here

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - I agree. Even the basic fact that the bulk of the Bible is the Old Testament, which is mostly of very indirect relevance, is a problem. Before I had a Kindle, I used to carry around a very small paperback volume of the New Testament and Psalms from the Authorized Version.

I wonder whether the biggest disagreement Christians have about the Bible is the importance of Revelation/ the Apocalypse. Some people ignore it - even arguing it is not truly canonical, some seem to regard it as the key text for modern times.