Notes on Matthew 3

Each new year many believers vow to read the Bible cover to cover within the next 12 months. I have tried and failed this objective many times.  This year I want to try something different. I will study just a few books (starting with the Gospel of Matthew) of the Word instead of the whole book.  And I will STUDY instead just monotonously churn through words as I have done in years past. I will read commentaries, blog posts, opinions, histories, and textual criticism.  Pretty much anything about Matthew that I can get my hands on. So suggestions for study material would be appreciated.

I hope to periodically post notes and things I have learned from this endeavor.  I imagine some of it will be apologetics, some may be pastoral, and some maybe just asking questions for further study.  My hope in sharing is that someone else may be inspired to dig deeper into our Good Good Father’s Word. I have already benefited even in this short time.

So let’s begin.

In Those Days . . .

Thirty years goes by between Matthew Chapter 2 and Chapter 3.  If a modern day biographer did something like that, many the eyebrows would indeed raise.  But doubtful that ancient readers of the ancients texts cried, “What happened to adolescent Jesus?  The teenage Jesus? You missed stuff about young adult Jesus!” No Matthew skipped over a lot of ground to get us to the meat of the story.  It’s interesting that nine of Matthew’s 28 chapters are spent on the events of Jesus’ last days. So one third of the gospel. Writings of antiquity,unlike, say, modern biographies, often take this sort of lop-sided form.  

So, it’s clear, dilly dallying isn’t on the menu.  Matthew desperately wants to get his readers, the Jews, to the point where they learn who Jesus is and what He has done for them and how they should live with this knowledge.  So doesn’t it seem odd that we open chapter three by introducing another man? Not putting Jesus front and center? This new character is John The Baptist. (JTB going forward)

The Historical John

As someone very interested in arguments for the Historical Jesus, that is, arguments that make the case for Him as an actual historical figure, I am thrilled to see John come preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  Why? Well, because JTB is an undisputed, to my knowledge, historical person. From Luke 1, he is also a distant relative of Jesus. His ministry was even mentioned by noted ancient Jewish historian Josephus. So people who are mentioned in genealogies and who have relationships with multiply-attested real historic persons are widely understood to also be ones of history as well, not myth.

Here’s what Josephus wrote about The Baptist in his work of ancient history, “Antiquities” (xviii. 116-119):

“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and was a very just punishment for what he did against John called the baptist  [the dipper]. For Herod had him killed, although he was a good man and had urged the Jews to exert themselves to virtue, both as to justice toward one another and reverence towards God, and having done so join together in washing. For  immersion in water, it was clear to him, could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions. And when others massed about him, for they were very greatly moved by his words, Herod, who feared that such strong influence over the people might carry to a revolt — for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise — believed it much better to move now than later have it raise a rebellion and engage him in actions he would regret.

And so John, out of Herod’s suspiciousness, was sent in chains to Machaerus, the fort previously mentioned, and there put to death; but it was the opinion of the Jews that out of retribution for John God willed the destruction of the army so as to afflict Herod.”

The Poorly Told Lie

In current Jesus conversations with skeptics these days, all you need to do in mention Josephus to hear someone shout “Interpolation! The writings of Josephus were corrupted by Christian copyists or translators!” And yes, there is a very real possibility that one of the sections mentioning Jesus was tampered with (by whom, nobody knows).  So some skeptics might reflexively imagine that the passage on John the Baptist was interpolated at the same time as the passage on Jesus. Yet, as John P. Meier states (“John the Baptist in Josephus,” p. 227):

“The account Josephus gives of the Baptist is literarily and theologically unconnected with the account of Jesus, which occurs earlier in book 18 and correspondingly lacks any reference to the Baptist. The passage about the Baptist, which is more than twice as long as the passage about Jesus, is also notably more laudatory. It also differs from (but does not formally contradict) the four Gospels in its presentation both of John’s ministry and of his death. Hence it is hard to imagine a Christian scribe inserting into book 18 of the Antiquities two passages about Jesus and the Baptist in which the Baptist appears on the scene after Jesus died, has no connection with Jesus, receives more extensive treatment than Jesus, and is praised more highly than Jesus.”

So as Meier believes, the injection of new Christian material into the JTB passage in Josephus in this way would amount to the telling of a poorly told lie.  There would be many other bits of information more beneficially added to the passage that would further a Christian agenda or promote Christianity more fully.  One of which would be to directly mention Jesus and form a strong connection between the two. As written, it is too well disguised as an independent report to have any purposeful evangelistic use due to those nefarious Christian interpolators!

Now! Introducing . . .

I think the best way to describe the function of JTB in the Gospels is that his job is that of a herald.  Historically, a herald was an officer in medieval Europe who carried messages to and from different military commands.  We also often think of heralds as announcers who inform us that an important person is about to enter the room. So to respond to my own comment above about it being odd that Matthew starts chapter three by shifting the focus to another character,  he really isn’t doing that at all. John only points us and his audience TO Jesus Christ. He is the prophesied “voice of one calling in the desert.  ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” (Isaiah 40:3).

The first chapter of the Gospel of John describes JTB this way:  

“6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”

“Great in the Sight of the Lord”

The Gospel of Luke describes JTB’s early family history.  The book describes the miracle of his birth to a barren woman, Elizabeth.  His father Zechariah, a Jewish priest who served in the Temple, received a message from the angel Gabriel about his son’s future arrival.

First of all, I wonder what it was like to know from a young age that you will be “great in the sight of the Lord” (Luke 1:15).  If not for the next detail of being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (same verse), I imagine one could abuse such a situation. And many of us are told by our parents that God has a plan for us, but I imagine few of them have this knowledge corroborated by an angel.

The detail of Zechariah’s position as one in a division of temple priests also helps to shed some light onto JTB’s pre-Gospel history.  John Meier, a scholar who has issues with the Infancy Narratives in Luke, makes this observation:

“. . . I think that if anything can be salvaged from Luke’s narrative, it is the idea that John was the only son of a priest who functioned in the Jerusalem temple.  This would be a most significant nugget of information, for the only son of a Jerusalem priest would have the solemn duty to follow his father in his function and to make sure that the priestly line was continued by marriage and children.  If this was in fact the historical situation, John at some point must have consciously turned his back on and—in Jewish eyes—scandalously rejected his obligation to be a priest in his father’s footsteps and to supply priestly descendents after him.  Forsaking family duty as well as his priestly duty to the Jerusalem temple—therefore, forsaking all that was the most sacred to Judaism—he went into the wilderness of Judea to announce imminent judgment and the dire need for moral cleansing on the part of all the Jews.” (AMJV2 pp24.)

So John may have turned away from the norms and obligations of his culture in order to wait on his calling from the Lord.  Dressed similarly to the prophet Elijah, coming out of the desert, possibly in a Qumran settlement, John did not seek to exchange niceties with approaching Pharisees and Sadducees.  “Brood of vipers!” served as his opening greeting to the religious elites of the time.  Then he flatly informed them that their reliance on their heritage as being people in the line of Abraham will not save them from the impending “unquenchable fire” (3:12).  They must “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” to avoid the “coming wrath” (3:8).  Gangster.

Fulfilling All Righteousness

So we now see how John’s story simply sets the stage for Jesus to re-enter to story.  After establishing the workings of John’s introductory movement, Matthew set up the meeting between the “herald” and the most important person in history.

First, however, JTB needed to make clear that his baptism is different from that of the One coming.  After all, he was sent to preach a message of repentance and deeds, clearing a path for the Savior from sin.  John says in Matthew 3:11:

“11 “I baptize you with[a] water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire.”

New Testament scholar Oscar Cullman explains that:  

“This is then the new element in Christian Baptism according to the preaching of the Baptist.  This new baptismal gift of the Holy Spirit is imparted neither by Jewish proselyte baptism nor by Johannine baptism.  It is bound up with the person and the work of Christ.” (BINTNT p.10)

In chapter 3, verse 13, it is told that “then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.  Maybe it’s a small detail, but one might read this as all occurring in one scene: John chastising religious leaders and preaching his message of repentance, then Jesus shows up.  It very well could have happened this way I suppose, but I see this more as a compressed narrative where Matthew is stacking separate stories one on top of the other. Apart from careful reading, these connections almost appear seamless. However, the idea that the sinless Messiah needed to receive John’s baptism of repentance when he had nothing for which to repent is a difficult one to fathom.  I am not embarrassed to say that I struggled with this one. Even John seemed shocked by the idea and suggested that it was he who needed the Messiah’s baptism, not the other way around.  To this Jesus said, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”(v.15)

Let’s look closer at this response. One thing to note, this is the first time Jesus speaks in the entire New Testament, considering the traditional book order of the Gospels in your bible and excluding instances chronologically earlier.  Next, when I read “Let it be so now. . . “ I read the now with emphasis, as if it is a command.  Jesus here takes the role of someone lesser while simultaneously possessing the role of King.  So when He says, “it is proper for us to do this . . .” he means this is okay, acceptable, the right thing to do.  It is not that this needs to happen. And he convinces John that there’s no problem with doing this.  This is what Jesus wants to do in order to “fulfill all righteousness”.  I believe His baptism became a symbol of his joining fallen humanity because by joining us, he is fulfilling all righteousness by sharing our baptism of repentance.

The following is what happened next:

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

It is unclear who heard the voice from heaven or saw the Spirit of God descend, but anyone who witnessed this happen could only be awe-struck. Were they surrounded by disciples of John or was this a more personal and private meeting? The text isn’t clear. What we do know is that this event kicked off Jesus’ ministry and started His journey to the Cross. Him be praised!

Here are some words taken from the Matthew Henry Commentary on Matthew that may sort this out a little more:

“At Christ’s baptism there was a manifestation of the three Persons in the sacred Trinity. The Father confirming the Son to be Mediator; the Son solemnly entering upon the work; the Holy Spirit descending on him, to be through his mediation communicated to his people. . . Out of Christ, God is a consuming fire, but in Christ, a reconciled Father. This is the sum of the gospel, which we must by faith cheerfully embrace.” (Henry)

May we all continue to cheerfully embrace faith in our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Thank you for reading this installment. May God bless you and keep you.

Sources:

http://peterkirby.com/john-the-baptist-authentic.html quoting “John The Baptist in Josephus” by John P. Meier. Pp 227.

Meier, John P. “A Marginal Jew Volume Two:  Mentor, Message, and Miracles”. P.24.

Cullman, Oscar.  “Baptism in the New Testament”. P.10.

Henry, Matthew. “Commentary on Matthew”.

All Scripture from NIV.

Notes on Matthew – Chapters 1 & 2

Each new year many believers vow to read the Bible cover to cover within the next 12 months. I have tried and failed this objective many times.  This year I want to try something different. I will study just a few books (starting with the Gospel of Matthew) of the Word instead of the whole book.  And I will STUDY instead just monotonously churn through words as I have done in years past. I will read commentaries, blog posts, opinions, histories, and textual criticism.  Pretty much anything about Matthew that I can get my hands on. So suggestions for study material would be appreciated.

I hope to periodically post notes and things I have learned from this endeavor.  I imagine some of it will be apologetics, some may be pastoral, and some maybe just asking questions for further study.  My hope in sharing is that someone else may be inspired to dig deeper into God’s Word. I have already benefited even in this short time.

So let’s begin.

Apologetics for the Jewish People

From the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, it is clear that the writer is forming a work of apologetics for the Jewish people, beginning with a genealogy that connects Abraham to Jesus Christ and then consistently noting where the happenings of Christ’s life reveal fulfillment of prophecy in the Jewish Scriptures.  

In just the first two chapters alone, we have five references to Jesus’ movements and presence fulfilling the words of the prophets.  In Matt 1:22-23, we have noted the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 with the instance of the virgin birth. Then Matt 2:5-6 shows that a ruler will come out of Judah, a reference to Micah 5:2.  Then in the span of the last eight verses of chapter two, we have three examples of completed prophecy with mentions of Hosea 11:1, Jeremiah 31:15, and a prophecy that is strangely unrecorded by the Old Testament Scriptures but listed internally as prophecy fulfillment in Matt 2:23.

There are many critics of Matthew’s habit of citing often vague and seemingly unrelated Old Testament scripture as fulfillment of prophecy.  The references do not come across as obvious or convincing in many instances. I invite you to Google the discussions for more detail. Scholar R.T. France, in his commentary “Matthew”, says the apostle applies these texts in subtle, seemingly forced and artificial ways.  But then he goes on to explain C. F. D. Moule’s observation that argues that “this ‘vehicular’ use of Scripture ‘is a symptom of discovery that, in a deeply organic way, Jesus was indeed a fulfiller of something which is basic in the whole of Scripture.’” France then goes on to say that:

 “what may seem to us an embarrassingly obscure and even irresponsible way of handling Scripture is in fact the outworking of a careful tracing of scriptural themes, which in different ways point to Jesus as the fulfiller not only of specific predictions, but also of the broader pattern of God’s Old Testament revelation.” (pp39-40)

So this topic is heading way beyond the scope of one of my blog posts.  A good item to shelve for further in depth study. There is tons more there.  I invite you to dig in.

Joseph’s POV?

More interesting to me is that much of the story here in the first two chapters seems to be from Jesus’ adopted father Joseph’s point of view.  Some scholars believe that Joseph may be an actual source for Matthew. But this just leads to more questions for me. When would Matthew have gotten Joseph’s testimony?  Would it have been from another source who knew him or is this direct testimony? The reason I ask is that it is my opinion that Joseph is no longer living by the time of the Crucifixion because of John’s Gospel observing mother Mary at the Cross in chapter 19, verse 25-27:

25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman,[a] here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (NIV)

So, in John, Mary is there with her sister, another Mary, wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdelene.  No Joseph. Now, we might think it is possible that Joseph was there but not mentioned until we see how the passage unfolds.  In the passage, Jesus notices his mother and arranges for the beloved disciple, John, to become her new son and she would be his new mother!  John is then to take her into his home “from that time on” (v.27). So many believe, including me, Joseph may have passed on by then. Nonetheless, it would seem odd if Jesus were to give his mother to the beloved disciple if His father, her husband, were still in the picture.

“Family” Matters

Note that Mary’s children are not by her side either in the passage from John.  Many believe that could be due to the family’s skepticism as reported in Mark 3:21-22: 

21 When his family[a] heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (NIV)

It’s interesting that in a parallel story later in Matthew (12:46-50) the writer doesn’t mention any worries by Jesus’ family of mental illness as it does in Mark.  This may be inline with Matthew’s attempt to minister to the Jews about fulfilled prophecy and the deity of Christ so this doesn’t fit neatly into his apologetic purposes.

It should be noted however that the word “family” there in Mark 3 probably does not include Mary and Joseph and his brothers.  We think this, in part, because later in verse 31 it describes these family members (Mary and Jesus’ brothers) arriving onto the scene and calling for him. In the NASB translation, the word “family” (from the NIV) is replaced with “his own people” and the RSV called them “friends”.  

Other explanations for the source of Joseph’s testimony, if not him directly, could be that this came to Matthew secondhand, maybe from James or Jude as told to them by Joseph or maybe from other brothers and sisters or family members post-Resurrection. My guess is it would have to be from someone with a personal familial connection to protect this information for so long.

“How long?” you may ask.  Well, the common dating of Matthew is around AD 80 (I personally think it’s earlier). If that were true, and Joseph died before AD 30 (to keep the numbers round), and it was true that Matthew 1-2 records his testimony of parts of the nativity story, Joseph’s side of things could have been kept by this relative or relatives for 50 years or more.  

Herod The Great?

Bible skeptics often bring up Matthew 2:13-18, “The Slaughter of the Innocents”, as a narrative invention of the Apostle Matthew, mostly due to the fact that contemporary historians, like Flavius Josephus, do not corroborate the story of the murder of all infant boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas.  To answer this challenge, I found an interview with ancient history expert Dr. Paul Maier, Russell Seibert Professor at Western Michigan University. Below, Dr. Maier first provides some insight into the notorious character of Herod The “Great” and then he answers the difficulty.

Interviewer:  Explain the paranoid side of Herod that begins to emerge later in his life.

Maier:  “Josephus gives us just a hideous tale of what was going on in the family, attempted poisonings, one brother against another. It so rattled Herod that he actually put to death three of his own sons on suspicion of treason. He put to death his favorite wife out of 10 of them. Mariamne was his favorite. She was a Hasmonean Macabean princess and he put her to death and then he killed his mother-in-law — I should say, one of his many mothers-in-law. He invited the high priest down to Jericho for a swim. They played a very rough game of water polo and they drowned him. He killed several uncles and a couple of cousins. Some have said he is a real family man, you know, in that negative respect.”

 (Continuing to document the cruel exploits of Herod . . .)

Maier:  “Well, Josephus has a very grisly thing to report about Herod in his last months. He was paranoid, though he did have some grasp of reality. For instance, he was worried that nobody would mourn his own death. Of course that shows how deadly accurate he was. They were preparing a general celebration. And nobody likes to die knowing that they are going to dance on your grave. And so he was going to give the people something to cry about.

In 4 BC he is in his winter palace in Jericho. It’s the only place in the holy land that doesn’t snow or get cold in the winter. It’s 1,200 feet below sea level. And Herod is dying. He tries every remedy in the world to stop the gang of diseases that were creeping up on him. He went to the hot springs on the northeastern corner of the Dead Sea. And that didn’t cure him.

So he goes back to his winter palace and he invites his sister Salome in and he says, “I want you to arrest all the Jewish leaders in the land and imprison them in the hippodrome just below the palace here.” And the hippodrome has been discovered archaeologically, by the way. And so she does so and then she says, “Brother, why am I doing this?” And Herod says, “Well, I know that when I die the Jews are going to rejoice. So I want to give them something to cry about.” And so he wants these leaders all executed in that hippodrome so that there will be thousands of households weeping at the time Herod the Great dies.”

Interviewer:  Speaking of Matthew 2, the Bible records this scene from Herod’s paranoia late in his life. The wise men alert him to the birth of a new king in Bethlehem. He wants to know where, so he can eradicate this new rival. The wise men wisely don’t return. Herod then responds by slaughtering all boys two-years-old and under in Bethlehem and in “all the region.” For all that Josephus writes about Herod, he makes no mention of this — in fact, there’s no extra-biblical evidence that this slaughter ever happened. How do you respond?

Maier:  “No, it is interesting. Josephus does not mention it. And therefore a lot of biblical critics will pounce on that aspect of the nativity account and say therefore it didn’t happen. Now please understand this is an argument from silence and that is the weakest form of argumentation you can use. As we say in the profession, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

In this case one or two things could have happened. Josephus may have heard about it and not used it because you don’t have hundreds of babies killed or you have only about 12, as a matter of fact, 12 or 15. The infant mortality in the ancient world was so huge anyway that this is really not going to impress the reader too much, believe it or not. And I think if Josephus is choosing between the two stories about how Herod died right before his death, I think I would take the one where he is going to slaughter hundreds of Jewish leaders.

Or he may not have heard about it. Again, simply because in little Bethlehem it doesn’t amount to much — a village of about 1,500 residents. In my actuarial study, Bethlehem at the time wouldn’t have had more than about two dozen babies two years old and under — half of them female. And so this is not a big deal, and I think that is why Josephus either never heard about it or didn’t feel it important enough to record. So this does not militate against Matthew’s version by any means.”

This concludes are my study so far. Continuing to chapters 3 & 4 next time.  God Bless.

Sources:

https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/truth-or-fiction-did-herod-really-slaughter-baby-boys-in-bethlehem

“Matthew”.  R.T. France.  TTNTC. pp39-40, 81-85.