Encountered from the perspective of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha of the previous centuries, Matthew comes as a stunning break. Even when the text continues earlier themes of corrupt priests and governing officials or of the persecution of prophets, there’s no precedent for the authority of the revolutionary voice that emerges here. While promising to follow the law of the Covenant to the letter, Jesus nevertheless interprets its intent in ways that challenge the very limitations that are conventionally imposed. Apart from a quick overview of the Nativity and flight to Egypt and then the crucifixion and resurrection, I felt surprisingly little history or biography in this book. Instead, it focuses largely on Jesus’ original, often contrarian, teaching itself, with his exhortations to do the seemingly impossible or impractical as an embodiment of faith, along with the instructions he delivered in his itinerant ministry of preaching and healing.
Indeed, is anyone before Jesus in the Bible so focused on teaching? Or of addressing the people, rather than the governing circle and priesthood? Well, we do have Moses in the desert. And then?
Many of the radical standards of personal conduct Jesus teaches will challenge existing political, economic, and social norms. They still do, in our own time.
Here we are introduced to a concept of the Holy One that differs sharply from those of the earlier scriptures — a Heavenly Father. It’s also a much warmer, more intimate father-son relationship than we previously seen. I’m wondering if any previous father-son bond, in Scripture or in ancient literature, is portrayed having such affection. And, yes, it further conceptualizes the infinite deity in male appearance.
This gospel, as is often noted, was directed at a Jewish audience, as evidenced by the long genealogy in the opening chapter, soon followed by the treachery of the Roman tyrant Herod. We’ve already encountered repeated genealogies in the Hebrew Bible, and from Maccabees, especially, we know of the brutality of the Roman overlords.
What’s the point of naming the thirty-nine generations, by the way, if Jesus isn’t the son of Joseph? (Add to that, if you want, the twenty-six ancestors from Adam to Abraham named in Chronicles.) To me, the passage that follows, “Before they would have a conjugal relation she was found pregnant from The Spirit of Holiness” (1:18), now seems to be a later editorial insertion, one that points the text in an alternative direction.
Something that did connect with me in this reading is the fact that the gospel was likely written at least 30 years after the crucifixion, which suggests that the passages attributed to Jesus about the upcoming events of betrayal, execution, and resurrection at Calvary may have been added to cast the history in a meaningful context. Some give the date of composition as early as 67 CE, during the Great Revolt and contemporaneous with Mark. Others place it as 80-90 CE, or later.
From a storytelling point of view, using the future tense for past actions is brilliant, one I now know was used in earlier Biblical books, including Daniel; it’s especially effective when we’ve assumed it’s a contemporaneous account rather than a posthumous reworking aimed at a Jewish audience.
For me, this takes nothing away from the breathtaking visions of the Beatitudes, parables, and his close teaching of disciples.
His instructions raise the demands of the Covenant in new ways, pressing its core intent rather than the letter of its limitations. It’s easy to sense he’s asking his followers to do the impossible. And it’s both intoxicating and intimidating.
Here we are also introduced to the parables as instruments of instruction. They go beyond riddles, which have definable answers, and instead confound easy interpretation. In that way, they’re more like the koans in Zen Buddhism. They’re to take root somewhere deep in the body and daily action.
One thing I found in online sampling of other translations from Aramaic is the usage of the word “Allah” rather than its synonym “God.” I wish David Bauscher had stuck with this. Too often we are left feeling that Muslims are worshiping a different deity, an impression some authorities may have been deliberately fostered.
Or is Allah itself a variant of Abba, or Daddy?
If Bauscher wants his readers to get closer to the milieu and language of Jesus, this seems a fitting concession.