Monday, January 04, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Matthew 1-5

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Matthew, chapters 1 through 5.

Chapter 1

  • Verses 1-17 - There's really no way around it.  Whether reading through the genealogy or listening to it on audio, all those "X the father of Y" entries tend to blur together pretty quickly.  Why did Matthew chose to start the gospel in this way?
  • Verse 17 - Matthew makes a pretty big deal about there being three sets of 14 generations each from the time of creation to the birth of Jesus.  Why is 14 such an important number?  (I know about 7, being a number related to "perfection," so perhaps 14 is "2 times 7")  Although Hagner concedes he is not able "to conclusively... discern Matthew's intent in the 3 x 14 structure,"1 Matthew's intention to craft such a structure is obvious.  In fact, he had to leave out a few generations in his geneology to do so!2  I do not point this out to threaten anyone's doctrine of "inerrancy" or "infallibility," per se.  Indeed, I am concerned with them precisely because I think of the Bible as so important.  But obviously one's understanding of the Bible must take these kinds of apparent discrepancies into account.
  • Verses 18-25 - I'm finding it noteworthy that Matthew starts the narrative portion of his gospel from Joseph's perspective.  We don't even meet Mary at first, and only learn of her pregnancy through the eyes of Joseph.  Given how little Joseph features into the gospel narrative after Jesus' birth (indeed, if at all!), and how little Joseph is ever mentioned even in modern Christianity (except in conjunction with Mary, of whom much more has been written, despite the relative lack of attention given to her in Matthew's gospel), I find this remarkable.
  • Verse 23 - No doubt I'll still be "finding my way" over the next few weeks in terms of deciding how much depth to go into on these posts. It's tempting to comment on each of the prophecies and/or Old Testament passages that Matthew cites, but since he does so pretty often (in fact, Matthew cites over 60 Old Testament passages, "more than twice as many as any other Gospel"3), that would make for some very long entries, and besides not wanting to lose readers through sheer boredom, I'm not really writing a commentary.  So I'm going to try to balance a desire for depth with a need to write more generally about some of the basics.  Matthew goes to some lengths to demonstrate that Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, and says so explicitly a number of times (Hagner notes that Matthew uses "a formula containing the verb πληρουν, 'fulfill'" 10 times4) using passages and prophecies that probably weren't understood to be particularly "Messianic" by the original audience.  Verse 23 is a particularly interesting example, since the word translated as "virgin" in this verse uses a Greek word in Matthew that corresponds to the Greek word used in the Old Testament Septuagint, but which is perhaps not the best word to use to translate the original Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14, which doesn't necessarily denote a young woman who has never had sexual relations.  The Isaiah passage references a prophecy that was to be fulfilled in the immediate future of its original context, not solely in the birth of Christ several hundred years later.  Matthew's use of this prophecy, and others, is an indicator of how he sees Christ as the ultimate goal of God's activity throughout history.5
  • Verse 23: "Immanuel" - Even Matthew doesn't seem to think that this should actually have been Jesus' given name (the name never appears again in this gospel).  Thus, he must see this prophecy as a kind of "title" for Jesus.
Chapter 2
  • Verses 1-12 - How interesting that the tale of the Magi happens to fall in the same week during which this tale will be covered by the Lectionary (Epiphany is on January 6th).  I doubt that will happen all that often.
  • Verse 9: "the star... went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was" - A lot of commentators have suggested that the Bible depicts the star as actually moving about in the sky, using these words as a basis.6  The audio version I'm using puts special emphasis on these words to suggest this, as well.  While I expect they know what they're talking about, I have to admit that I've never really understood these words in this way when reading them on my own.  Rather (and I can't really explain why I've thought this way), I've tended to think of the "Christ star" as like Polaris, the "North Star" that navigators have used throughout the ages to find their way.  (Perhaps ironically, Polaris is useful because it is fixed in the sky in a way unlike most other stars, the exact opposite of what is said about the "Christ Star"!)  That a star (however stationary) would "go ahead" of a person following it simply strikes me as obvious.  How could it be any other way?
  • Verses 19-22 - Although I've read and heard this passage lots of times, I've always kind of glossed over the fact that Joseph and his family aren't done "running" even after Herod has died.  Matthew goes to some trouble to show that Joseph needed two dream warnings to finally end up in Nazareth.
Chapter 3
  • Verse 7: "You brood of vipers!" etc. - While I want to be careful about confusing an interpretation of a text with the text itself, I have to say, I really like how the audio version I'm listening to puts the rage in John the Baptizer's words.  However, I do wonder about John's outburst.  Did he not want them to repent?  I suspect that John would have unkind words for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, but whose lives do not demonstrate "fruit in keeping with repentance."
  • Verse 15: " fulfill all righteousness" - Jesus gives his reason for coming to John to be baptized, but I still don't really know what he means....  Hagner suggests that Jesus needed to be baptized to demonstrate "his solidarity with his people in their need."7 
    Chapter 4
    • Verses 1-11 - Although Jesus' temptations are illustrative for us, I similarly struggle with the question of why he would need to undergo this trial.
    • Verse 12 - I wonder, was John imprisoned shortly after baptizing Jesus, or some more considerable time later?  Did Jesus actively wait until after learning of John's imprisonment before starting his Galilean ministry, or is Matthew simply saying that this is the time that such ministry began?
    • Verses 18-20 - A key feature of these anecdotes of Jesus calling his disciples is that they immediately followed Jesus upon being called, but I wonder "what was the appeal?"  Fishermen, for example, catch fish to have food and to earn a living.  "Fishing for people" offers no such obvious financial benefit.  What was it about that promise that Andrew and Peter responded to?  Or, could Jesus have said pretty much anything, and they'd have followed him anyway?
    • Verse 22 - How did Zebedee feel about being left behind by his sons?  Why didn't he follow Jesus, too?
    Chapter 5
    • As with the Old Testament prophecies, I'm trying to balance the temptation to comment on each of the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount with the need for (comparative!) brevity.
    • Verses 1-12 - Jesus offers blessings to people who clearly need it.  Do only these kinds of people receive blessings, or is this a particular encouragement to those who need it most?
    • Verse 13 - I've always been a bit thrown by the reference to salt losing "its saltiness," since it is my understanduing that salt is a particularly stable compound that simply doesn't lose its properties in this way.  Hagner suggests that Jesus may be referring to salt "derived from the Dead Sea by evaporation" which may also contain "crystals of another mineral (gypsum) that can easily be mistaken for salt,"8 but which of course would not have salt's taste nor its preservative characteristics.
    • Verse 17-20 - One wonders why people might have thought, in Jesus' time, that Jesus was coming "to abolish the Law or the Prophets."  Was there something about Jesus' ministry that suggested to these early followers (I assume he didn't care so much what the Pharisees thought) that Jesus didn't care about the Law?  It's a bit easier for me to understand why people might make that assumption today, after Jesus' death and resurrection, and the establishment of the New Testament canon.  It's harder to see how people made that assumption at the time. 
    • Verse 22 - Why do modern translations leave "Raca" untranslated (and therefore needing unpacking for any modern reader to understand), yet go ahead and translate "you fool" so that we can understand it?
    • Verses 29-30 - I've heard a lot of debates about whether Jesus intended that these instructions that followers should maim themselves should be taken literally or not.  I can't help but notice that very few of even the most conservative of Jesus' modern followers seem to actually follow through on these instructions, even if they argue academically that Jesus did indeed mean them to be taken literally.

    1Dr. Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (Word Biblical Commentary), Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1993. p. 7.
    2Hagner, p. 11.
    3Hagner, p. liv.
    4Hagner. p. liv.
    5See Hagner, pp. lv-lvi, 20.
    6For example, see Hagner, p. 30.
    7Hagner, p. 57.
    8Hagner, p. 99.


    Next Week

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