Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Matthew: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary. I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

Matthew: a Book Report

The book of Matthew is a biography of Jesus which scholars believe was written between 75-100 C.E.  Like much of the Bible, the gospel of Matthew was written in a time of great crisis for the Jews to whom it was addressed.  In 70 C.E., the Roman empire invaded Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and the survivors lived under oppressive Roman rule.

"Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem" by Francesco Hayez (1867)

The Jews for whom Matthew was written were followers of a relatively recent Jewish prophet called Jesus, who had been executed by the Romans, a crime reserved for enemies of the state.  Thus, the new sect of “Christians” lived in a precarious position.  They were mainly poor and marginalized, and followed a prophet whom the state deemed seditious.  Matthew’s biography of Jesus seeks to give hope and understanding to this community, who were mainly observant Jews.

The Birth and Childhood of Jesus

Matthew begins his biography with a genealogy stretching all the way back to Abraham, to show that Jesus was both biologically and spiritually connected to the nation of Israel.  His ancestors include kings like David, as well as important women from the Hebrew scriptures like Rahab, Bathsheba, and Ruth.

Jesus was miraculously conceived in the womb of an unmarried Jewish peasant named Mary, who was engaged to a man named Joseph.  To spare Mary the disgrace of becoming pregnant out of wedlock (a crime under Jewish law), Joseph decides to quietly divorce her.  But Joseph was visited by an angel in a dream, telling him to marry Mary, because her son would be very important.

"Madonna and Child With the Book" by Raphael (1503)

Regarding Jesus’ miraculous virgin birth, Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God With Us.’” In its original context, this verse had to do with a threat by Assyria against 7th century Israel.  The Hebrew word for “virgin” actually meant “young woman.”  But the Greek translation of the scriptures used by Matthew contained a different word, which meant “virgin.”  The point is that, throughout the gospels, when writers say that Old Testament passages are “fulfilled” by Jesus, they are usually re-interpreting a verse that had a different meaning in its original context.  

"Adoration of the Magi" by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1632)

After Jesus was born, some ancient astrologers who had followed a star, came to visit Jesus and pay their respects to this special child.  These “magi” were likely Zoroastrian.  The villainous King Herod (basically a Roman puppet) tried to use these astrologers to find and kill Jesus, but this didn’t work.  Then Mary and Joseph, and the baby Jesus, fled to Egypt, seeking refuge.  Apparently, Herod was so paranoid about this special baby that he sent soldiers to kill all the male babies in and around Bethlehem.  This horrific act, which recalled the Pharaoh’s massacre of Jewish babies in Exodus, became known as “The Massacre of the Innocents.”

"Massacre of the Innocents" by Nicolas Poussin (1629)

After things had cooled down a bit, Jesus’ family moved back to Israel and settled in a tiny village called Nazareth.  According to scholar Reza Aslan, Nazareth was populated mostly by illiterate day laborers and subsistence farmers.  The point is that Jesus grew up in poverty.

Jesus’ Ministry Begins

Then the story moves forward many years, and introduces a prophet named John the Baptist, who is a kind of herald of Jesus.  Many people came to see John in the wilderness, and to be baptized by him in the Jordan river.  John is poor, and the people he attracts are generally the poor and marginalized.  This will be Jesus’ main audience as well.  His message is simple: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  This notion of “the kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God” will be an important idea in the message and ministry of Jesus.  What it means is that a new kingdom is coming that will be an alternative reality to the empire of Rome, with all its oppression and injustice.  In the kingdom of God, embodied by the new community Jesus creates, there will be equality and social justice, i.e. a total reversal of the way things are.  John is particularly harsh against the religious leaders of his day, whom he sees as apathetic and complicit with the status quo.  What John, and Jesus, envision is nothing less than revolutionary.

"St. John the Baptist" by Leonardo da Vinci (1516)

Jesus is baptized by John, and his ministry begins.  After he is baptized, Jesus goes into the wilderness, where he is tempted by Satan for forty days, and successfully resists these temptations.  This episode recalls Israel’s forty-year wandering in the book of Exodus.

"The Temptation of Christ" by Ary Sheffer (1854)

With his disciples in tow, Jesus travels around, speaking in synagogues and to large crowds of people.  He also heals people miraculously.  Chapters 5-7 are known as “The Sermon on the Mount,” because they are spoken from a mountaintop, and they recall the story of Moses receiving the laws of God in Mt. Sinai.  Jesus’ sermon may be seen as a re-imagining of the laws of Moses, to fit the circumstances of his day and age.

The Sermon on the Mount

In today’s modern America, with its multitude of churches and Christians, it’s easy to lose sight of just how revolutionary Jesus’ ideas really were.  I think that, if American Christians really acted out the ideas given in the Sermon on the Mount, there would be a huge revolution in which the wealthy and powerful would lose their wealth and power.

Jesus begins with a series of blessings on those people who have gotten a really bad deal under the Roman empire.  He blesses the poor, the humble, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted.  He commands that his followers not merely tolerate, but actually love, their enemies.  The study notes to my Bible contain this explanation, in which Jesus is seen as Gandhi-like (or Gandhi seen as Jesus-like): “Jesus offers examples of such resistance that aim to confound the more powerful, restore dignity and initiative to the oppressed, and publicly shame or disarm the oppressor.”

"The Sermon on the Mount" by Carl Bloch

Jesus is anti-materialistic.  He says, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  He tells his followers to be okay with material poverty, like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.  Jesus says that his followers are not allowed to be judgmental.  He says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”

Perhaps Jesus’ most revolutionary idea is the so-called “Golden Rule, “ which he says is the ultimate point of all Jewish scripture.  He says, “In everything, do unto others as you would have them do unto you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Miracles and Healing

After delivering the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus miraculously heals a bunch of people: the servant of a Roman centurion, Peter’s mother-in-law, and many others.  Jesus is non-discriminatory in his healing.  He heals even those who were marginalized in society, like lepers and women, showing the kind of counter-cultural, inclusive community called “The Kingdom of God.”  

"Jesus Heals a Leper" (artist unknown)

Through his miracles and teaching, Jesus gathers more and more followers.  Once, when he and some disciples are in a boat, there is a big storm, and Jesus stills it.  He has power over disease, natural forces, and demons, which he often casts out from people.

"Christ on the Sea of Galilee" by Eugene Delacroix (1854)

The Twelve Apostles

Though Jesus gathers many followers, he has a special inner circle of twelve dudes, which is reminiscent of the twelve tribes of Israel.  The apostles' names are Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James (a different one), Thaddeus, Simon, and Judas.  Jesus commissions them to preach the “good news” of God’s Kingdom, in direct defiance to the present social order.  Because of the revolutionary nature of this kingdom, Jesus says his disciples will experience persecution, even death.  He encourages them to follow the way of the cross, which is to identify with those who threatened the Roman empire.  Crucifixion was, after all, a punishment for enemies of the state.

Icon of the Twelve Apostles (artist unknown)

To illustrate the kind of persecution his followers will face, Jesus points to John the Baptist, who was recently imprisoned and was awaiting execution for sedition.  Jesus praises John, and speaks against those who do no accept his message.  Jesus was, and continues to be, a polarizing figure in society.  After speaking of persecution, Jesus comforts his disciples with these words: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  After what they’ve suffered under Roman rule, Jesus’ followers will find peace and rest in the alternative community that Jesus calls “The Kingdom of God.”

Jesus and the Pharisees

Jesus’ message is not just against the imperial power of Rome, but also against the religious leaders of his day.  This is illustrated by a series of conflicts with the Pharisees, a popular sect of Judaism at the time.  These clashes between Jesus and Jewish religious leaders have been used, historically, by Christians to justify anti-semitism.  This, I believe, is a totally unjustifiable reading, because Jesus and his disciples were Jews as well.  What Jesus and the Pharisees disagree about is not Judaism itself (or Jews), but rather interpretations of certain laws and religious practices.  Jesus was never anti-semitic.  He lived and died an observant Jew.

Jesus first clashes with the Pharisees have to do with proper observance of the Sabbath, a holy day of rest and devotion for Jews.  The Pharisees take issue with the fact that Jesus disciples pick some grain, and that Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath.  This was because no “work” was to be done on this day.  Jesus replies that human need and acts of mercy override strict observance.  More bitter debates follow, in which the Pharisees accuse Jesus of being Satanic.  Jesus replies with some harsh words, calling them a “brood of vipers,” and saying that they will be judged.  Jesus, while usually amazingly composed, is not above occasional shit-talking.


Then Jesus teaches his followers using a series of parables, which are little stories with a metaphorical/spiritual meaning.  The first parable is about a farmer who plants some seeds.  The seeds fall on different kinds of soil: rocky, thorny, good soil, etc.  The seeds represent Jesus’ message, and the soils represent his diverse audience.  Many will reject his teachings, but some will accept them.

"The Sower" by Vincent VanGogh

Jesus gives several parables which are meant to show what the “kingdom of heaven” is like.  Again, this kingdom is not simply an otherworldly spiritual realm—it is the present alternative community that Jesus is creating.  This community is like a field full of wheat and weeds—justice and injustice coexist for a while, but justice will ultimately prevail.  The community is like a mustard seed—from small origins grow great things.  It is like a treasure, a pearl which, once found, cannot be forsaken.  It is like a net which catches the good and the bad, but the good will prevail.

Jesus then goes home to Nazareth, and no one believes he is a prophet.  He is rejected in his home town.  We also learn that Jesus has brothers and sisters, including a guy called James, who probably wrote the New Testament book of James.

Jesus vs. Herod

Two stories are then related which contrast the corrupt and destructive ruling elite with the compassionate community of Jesus.  The son of King Herod throws an extravagant banquet for his rich nobles.  At the request of his sister-in-law (whom Herod is sleeping with), the king has John the Baptist beheaded, and the head presented to his sister-in-law on a platter.  This whole banquet scene is a grotesque display of the corrupt, incestuous power of the elite.

"The Head of John the Baptist" by Jean Benner (1899)

This is then contrasted with a scene of Jesus ministering to 5,000 peasants in the wilderness.  They are hungry, and Jesus miraculously provides food for everyone.  In contrast to Herod’s selfish banquet, Jesus’ selflessness, compassion, and general concern for the poor and marginalized are shown by this miracle.

"Jesus Feeds the 5000" by Laura James

Then Jesus goes up to a mountain alone to pray, sort of like Moses or Elijah.  Mountaintops are often used in the Bible as places for meeting God.  Meanwhile, his disciples take a boat out to sea, and another storm arises, and they are afraid.  Jesus suddenly appears, walking on the water.  Peter gets so excited that he steps out of the boat and tries to meet Jesus on the water.  Unfortunately, he becomes afraid, and begins to sink and drown.  Jesus saves him.

"Jesus Walks on the Water" by Ivan Alvazovsky (1888)

Religious Questions

Jesus has another in a series of arguments with the Pharisees and another Jewish sect called the Sadducees.  Jesus is upset with them because they seem to value religious rituals and traditions over basic human values like compassion and love.  Again, Jesus’ beef is not with Judaism (he was a Jew) but with certain interpretations of Judaism.  The context in which Matthew was written was a time of great debate (following the destruction of the Temple) over what it meant to be a Jew.  

This debate probably underlies the next section, which is disturbing.  While Jesus is traveling through Tyre and Sidon, a gentile woman asks him to heal her daughter.  Jesus’s first response is “No” because the woman is not a Jew.  Even Jesus (or, more likely, the writer of Matthew) could be prejudiced.  But the woman pleads with Jesus, and he ultimately agrees to heal the girl.  This passage, as with some of the more racist passages of the Old Testament, must be understood in the context of the writers of these texts.  

I think this is how we might also make sense of some of the more “judgmental” aspects of Jesus teachings, like when he says people will burn in hell. I don’t know what to make of these seemingly incongruous passages, like “The son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping an gnashing of teeth.”  (13:41-42).  Most Christians I’ve met don’t have a problem with the concept of hell, but for me it is a deeply troubling moral quandary that doesn’t fit with the otherwise compassionate and forgiving Jesus I find in the gospels.

Jesus Foresees His Fate

Jesus then gives his first prediction regarding his ultimate fate.  He will suffer at the hands of the authorities, be killed, and then resurrected—to show his ultimate triumph.  Jesus tells his disciples that they, too, must follow the way of the cross—of suffering, persecution, and possibly death.  Indeed, to follow Jesus means to oppose the status quo—to embrace poverty, a commitment to justice, and to nonviolently resist exploitive systems.

Then Jesus takes Peter, John, and his brother James to a mountaintop, where he is “transfigured” into a heavenly being.  Moses and Elijah also appear.  God speaks, calling Jesus his “beloved son.”

"Transfiguration" by Titian (1560)

More Radical Teachings

In the Roman world of Jesus, as in modern America, wealth and social status were the highest ideals.  Jesus’ disciples ask him who is great in the “kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus says that child-like humility will determine greatness in his alternative community.  This, of course, totally subverts the present economic and social system.  Jesus says that this alternative community is based on mutual egalitarian accountability, and constant forgiveness of one another.  

A rich young man asks Jesus, “What must I do to be saved?”  Jesus says that the man must sell all his possessions and give them to the poor.  The man walks away sad.  He can’t part with his stuff.  Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  In other words, material wealth prevents people from participating in Jesus’ alternative community.  By this standard, most Americans are excluded, as we are the wealthiest country in the world.  It seems, here, that capitalism and Christianity are inherently incompatible.  If you are a beneficiary of wealth inequality and third-world labor exploitation (which most of us are), you cannot be a Christian.

"Christ and the Rich Young Man" by Heinrich Hofmann (1889)

Jesus says that the test of greatness in his alternative community is service to others and self-sacrifice.  Jesus says, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the son of man (Jesus) came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Jesus Enters Jerusalem and Stirs Some Shit Up

Then Jesus enters Jerusalem in an almost mocking commentary of imperial power.  Instead of entering the city on a war horse or chariot, he enters riding on a lowly donkey, a common beast of burden.  Nonetheless, he has become so popular that large crowds gather to greet him.

"The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem" by Zambian artist Emmanuel Nsama

Upon reaching Jerusalem, the first thing Jesus does is enter the temple and violently overturns the tables of people making a profit from religion—selling sacrificial doves and exchanging money.  The only time in the Bible Jesus gets violent is when people are using religion to make money.  I wonder what Jesus would have to say about televangelists and mega-churches.

"Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple" by El Greco (1600)

Jesus' actions obviously upset priests and religious leaders who make their living off the Temple.  Jesus debates and refutes them through more parables, teachings, and Socratic-style questioning—he makes people re-think their industry of religion.  In contrast to the elaborate (and expensive) traditions and rituals of Temple worship, Jesus boils things down to two basic commandments that encompass all the laws and the prophets: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus gives a long tirade against religious leaders.  His message is basically, “Stop being hypocritical.  Focus your lives on justice and mercy.  Don’t hide behind laws and traditions.”  Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple.

Jesus Speaks About His Second Coming

Then Jesus gives an apocalyptic description of his second coming, which will signal the end of the present world order, and the reign of God’s kingdom.  Th early Christians awaited this day with great expectation.  However, two times in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes predictions about this which don’t come true.  In 16:26, Jesus says to his disciples, “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the son of man coming in his kingdom.”  And in 24:34, he says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  The fact that 2000 years later, Jesus has still not returned in power and glory suggests, to me, that these passages do not come from Jesus, but from Matthew, the sometimes prejudiced author.  Also, the imperial manner in which this second coming is described does not gel with the humble, egalitarian community Jesus spends most of the gospels describing.

Jesus says that the basis upon which people will be judged at the end of the world will be the extent to which they fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the homeless and poor, cared for the sick, and visited prisoners.  Jesus says that he himself is embodied in these poor, marginalized, homeless, hungry, and imprisoned people.

Jesus is Betrayed and Arrested

Judas, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles, conspires with the religious and political elite to betray and arrest Jesus for money.  But before this happens, Jesus shares a Passover meal with the apostles.  Jesus says that the bread and the wine represent his sacrifice for humanity.  This is the origin of communion.

"The Last Supper" by Leonardo Da Vinci

Then Jesus goes to a garden and prays.  He is deeply troubled.  He knows that the religious and political elite have conspired against him.  He knows he is going to die.  He prays that his suffering might be averted, but ultimately accepts his fate.

"Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane" by Paul Gauguin

Shortly thereafter, Judas arrives with armed soldiers to arrest Jesus.  One of Jesus' disciples draws a sword and strikes a soldier.  Jesus tells him to put his sword away.  Jesus is all about nonviolent resistance.  He is Gandhi-like.

The soldiers and religious elite take Jesus to the high priest, who is basically a Roman puppet, like the king.  The high priest condemns Jesus to death for blasphemy, which is kind of ironic.  It’s like condemning God to death for blasphemy.  Meanwhile, Jesus' apostles, his best friends, abandon and deny him.  Even Peter denies Jesus.  They are scared for their lives.  Jesus is now alone in his suffering.

Judas, recognizing that he has betrayed an innocent man, commits suicide.

Jesus is Condemned and Executed

Jesus is then brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.  Pilate questions Jesus about his politics.  Jesus is defiantly silent.  The religious and political leaders gather a mob who demand Jesus’ execution.

"Christ Before Pilate" by Nicholas Maes

The Roman soldiers strip Jesus and humiliate him by dressing him up like a mock-king.  They give him a robe and a crown of thorns.  They spit on him and beat him.  They are brutal, as those with unchecked power tend to be.  Under Roman rule, there is no justice for poor revolutionaries like Jesus, even if they are nonviolent.

Then Jesus is crucified, which was a common form of Roman execution.  It was a punishment for political criminals.  As a joke, the soldiers nail a sign to the cross, which reads “The King of the Jews.”  Ironic.  Jesus is crucified with two other peasant rebels.

"Christ Crucifed" by Diego Velasquez

While Jesus is dying, people mock him.  Where are all his followers and supporters?  Probably afraid that they will share his fate.  The Romans publicly crucified people, as a kind of deterrent against rebellion.  It worked pretty well.

As Jesus is dying, he calls out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” quoting a Psalm of lament form the Hebrew scriptures.  Then Jesus dies.  His death is accompanied by earthquakes, resurrected dead bodies, and the veil of the temple is split in two, suggesting a new access to God, unmediated by the corrupt religious elite.

After his death, some women care for his body, and bury it in a rock tomb.

Jesus’ Resurrection

A few days after Jesus is buried, these women go to see the tomb, to pay their respects.  An angel is there, who rolls back the stone and tells them that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, Jesus appears and says, “Boo!”  JK, Jesus says, “Greetings!” and he tells them to have the apostles meet him in Galilee.

In Galilee, Jesus appears to his apostles and commissions them to go out and change the world.

"After Jesus and Mary" by Trevor Southey


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  3. Astounding article. I loved all the pictures.