Oh hi how are you so much to talk about today so let’s get right to it and now is the part where I say BOOK.
Hello, this is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I am Josh Way. On this show we look at the content of the Judeo-Christian Bible through the lenses of history and literature. And I hope you brought your Greek lexicon and map of the Roman Empire, because we’re cracking open a new collection of texts. Last time we completed our BOOK survey of the Hebrew Bible, and today we turn our attention to the so-called “New Testament,” a collection of Greek texts from the early Christian movement of the First Century. I want to dive right into the first book in the collection today, but first we need to say a few things about the fascinating relationship between this “new” collection of texts and the one we’ve just read together.
On the surface, the two libraries – Hebrew Bible and Greek Testament – couldn’t be more different. The Hebrew Bible collects a disparate array of genres and authors spanning thousands of years and several languages, all of which contributes to the story ancient Israel came to tell about herself, her origins, her struggles, and her hopes for her future. The Greek books of the “New Testament” are far fewer, and were all likely composed within the same century (the first one of the “Common Era”). And while the Hebrew Bible features many hundreds of subjects and protagonists, the Greek writings focus squarely on one person, Jesus of Nazareth, and his friends and followers.
And so, with all of this apparent discontinuity, is there any continuity between these two collections? The answer is yes, absolutely. And while there are a host of obvious reasons why Jewish readers do not embrace the Greek Testament, it would be a huge mistake for Christians to reciprocate and shrug off the Hebrew Bible. The reason is simple: As I think we will discover shortly, we cannot hope to understand the words, assumptions, and worldviews of these first century authors without having a solid understanding of what the Jewish scriptures say. Sadly, many Western bible readers have imagined that they could, the result being some very problematic interpretations. The second testament doesn’t make any sense without the first one.
Because the books of the New Testament were composed in and around the Near Eastern territories of the Roman Empire all within a likely span of mere decades, we should have an easier time interpreting the literature without having to constantly check which century we’re in and which of Israel’s many enemies is taking over the world this week. On the other hand, our job is still to remain vigilant and attentive to the many different elements which often come crashing together in these texts. These are Jewish texts, through and through, but they are written in Greek, by subjects of the ever expanding and evolving Roman Empire, and they often contain political rhetoric which we could easily mistake for something else. Keeping the balance between all of these things will be our primary task.
There’s much more we could say, but I think we’ve said enough to open up the first book in the Greek Testament, the “Gospel of Matthew.” So what is a “gospel?” On a basic level, it’s an announcement, a bit of news as it was broadcast in the centuries before teleprompters and hair gel. Like most of the buzzwords we’ll encounter in the New Testament, it has resonance in both Jewish tradition and Roman politics. In the Hebrew Bible we see the citizens of Jerusalem waiting eagerly for a scout to appear on the horizon, bringing “good news” of victory in some distant battle (see Isaiah 52). And in Rome, a “gospel” (or evangelion in Greek) was the public proclamation of some new imperial reality, rhetorically called “good news” for the way it was sure to inspire confidence and happy feelings in the hearts of Rome’s many citizens.
So what is the “gospel” of the “gospels” in the New Testament? It’s a Jewish man named Jesus. What makes Jesus a top story? Well, we’ll let the authors tell us that. And in four very unique ways, they will.
The Gospel of Matthew appears first in the NT canon, though it is most likely not the oldest of the four gospels and is most certainly not the earliest text in the whole collection (that honor would probably go to one of the letters of Paul we’ll examine another time). The book is attributed to Matthew, also called Levi, a Jewish tax collector who became a follower of Jesus. If I were to describe Matthew’s gospel with one word, that word would have to be Jewish. This is a Jewish book for Jews, which builds a complicated argument about Jesus using quotes from the Hebrew Bible. Matthew’s claim is simple: Jesus is moshiach, the messiah, the anointed one, the new king that Israel has been waiting for since the rebuilding of Jerusalem centuries earlier. It’s a potentially confusing business, in our context, trying to understand what exactly a “messiah” is and isn’t. I think there are two major reasons for this:
- The title “messiah,” “christos” in Greek, has been rendered “Christ” in most of our English translations, and we are more likely to associate “Christ” with the second person of the Holy Trinity in church doctrine, or to just assume it was Jesus’ last name. It’s not really either.
- The second reason, related to the first, is that we have defined “messiah” backwards from what the church believes about Jesus, instead of constructing it forward, through Jewish expectation and hope. As a result, we think “messiah” means “one who is born of a virgin, dies on cross, and rises again to save humanity.” Approximate variations on those things are indeed said about Jesus of Nazareth in the gospels, but they are not the definition of “messiah.”
There was no singular, monolithic expectation in the Jewish world of Matthew’s day of what a messiah would be and do. But if you recall our journey together through the Hebrew Bible – through Psalms and the Prophets in particular – you might remember that we collected little tidbits here and there, poems and prayers about a coming king, or a mysterious servant, or a “son of man” (a guy) who will be empowered by Israel’s God YHWH to deliver the nation and lead it into a new season of blessing. Not all Jews of the First Century had the same beliefs and assumptions about what moshiach might look like. Matthew’s argument, through every single line of his gospel, is that Jesus IS moshiach; he is the king, the servant, and the son of man. It’s there from the very first line of his book:
1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Three huge things are established immediately through Matthew’s choice of words: Jesus is a true Jew (a “son of Abraham”), he is a legitimate heir to the throne from the tribe of Judah (“son of David”), and he is moshiach. And if that’s not Jewish enough, he immediately provides a Hebrew-Bible-style genealogy for Jesus which connects these dots and adds one more element that we have tended to overlook for too long. The genealogy is highly stylized, skipping entire centuries, and is remarkable for the subversive presence of five female names, women typically being excluded from Jewish family trees. I won’t read the whole thing, but it’s organized neatly around four major figures, and Matthew explains it like this in verse 17:
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah fourteen generations.
From Abraham to David, from David to the Exile, from Exile to Jesus. What is the Babylonian exile doing in a genealogy? Western Christians don’t usually think to ask this question, and this is why we don’t fully understand “messiah.” Babylonian exile gets its own place on the messiah’s timeline because it was the cauldron in which the messianic hope was born, AND because most Jews in the First Century believed that the curse of Exile was still upon Israel, despite the people having been back in the land for generations. Recall the anticlimax at the end of the Hebrew Scriptures, where the Temple is rebuilt but God still seems like a no-show. And the continued presence of pagan overlords like Greece and Rome in Judea has kept the people in “exile” in their homeland. And so messiah logic works like this:
1. YHWH establishes a covenant with Abraham to make him the head of a great family which would in turn bless all other families on earth.
2. YHWH renews the covenant with David, promising to turn this family into an “everlasting kingdom,” but David and his successors repeatedly break the covenant, so…
3. YHWH punishes Israel with Exile for 500 years, but prophets pop up and announce that the curse will end, and that David’s throne will be established forever as promised. That will be step 4. That is the messianic expectation. And Matthew’s not-so-subtle claim is that Jesus represents the climax and resolution of this story.
So, if moshiach is all about restoring Israel’s fortunes and getting the covenant back on track, where does all this virgin birth and resurrection stuff come from? Well, we’ll deal with the resurrection in due time, but it just so happens that the birth of Jesus is the next item on Matthew’s agenda. Now, we covered this in some detail in podcast 19a, our so-called “Christmas special” from last year, but many points bear repeating. First, despite the absolute fervor modern Christians possess for all things “Christmas,” it’s remarkable and unpopular to note how little space the “nativity” material occupies in the bible. The story of Jesus’ birth is only represented by a couple of paragraphs here in Matthew and a chapter at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. That’s it. Mark and John skip right over the birth of Jesus and begin with his public prophetic campaign. Even more surprising, though, is the fact that the “Virgin Birth” is never mentioned or even appealed or alluded to in all the rest of the New Testament. Even in the gospels that do tell the story of Jesus’ birth, nobody points to the adult Jesus and says “Look, there is the one who was born of the virgin in Bethlehem!” And elsewhere, in the letters of Paul, for example, we find numerous mentions of the fact that Jesus was born, but they always emphasize the natural, mortal mode of the birth, never Mary’s virginity. It’s surprising, but it’s true!
Matthew, nonetheless, does want to tell us about Jesus’ birth. He tells of an unmarried virgin named Mary and her betrothed Joseph, who is visited by a messenger (called an “angel,” but don’t think wings and halo, think of the “men” who visited Abram and Sarai in Genesis). The messenger speaks in chapter 1 verse 21:
21 “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.”
There are lots of big things going in this one verse. First, “Jesus” or “Yeshua” means “He saves” or “He rescues” in Hebrew, and indeed the messenger promises that this Yeshua will “save people from their sins.” Many of us are culturally conditioned to hear the words “save” and “sin” and think of a very specific religious paradigm, getting “saved” from your “sin” so you can “go to heaven” when you die. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s remember the story that’s being told here, and its roots in the Hebrew Bible. “Salvation” is an Exodus word, it’s about YHWH rescuing his people from danger in Egypt. Now, Israel is praying for a New Exodus, a rescue from exile and more to-the-point, from Roman oppression. And what, according to Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the prophets, had caused Israel to be sent into exile? Her “sin.” The national sins of Israel need to be forgiven so God’s big plan can move forward. Enter moshiach.
Matthew says this “fulfills” a verse from Isaiah about a virgin giving birth to a son and calling him “Immanuel,” which means “God with us” in Hebrew. I went into great detail about this quote and how it works in that “Christmas Special” podcast, so I’ll just summarize here. Isaiah chapter 7, the “Immanuel” passage, finds the prophet warning a foolish king named Ahaz not to pay his enemies protection money, and to trust in YHWH instead. To hammer his point home he predicts that a king will soon be born (of one of the royal “virgins” whose job is to give birth to new kings), and that king will trust God so much that these particular enemies will be vanquished. The king – named Hezekiah – is born, and the prophecy comes true within Isaiah’s lifetime. Matthew invokes this because now, in his century, another virgin is about to give birth to another king – he believes, the messiah. I know that’s not the popular way of interpreting this passage, but see podcast 19a for the full argumentation. I think ultimately it’s pretty clear.
One more observation about the nativity story before we move on. Remember how like EVERY story in the Hebrew Bible started out with a barren womb that was “opened” by YHWH so some important figure in Israel’s history could be born? In a sense, this is the ultimate version of that story. But YHWH’s sovereignty over this birth is so absolute that he will “open” Mary’s womb without the typical biological kickstart. And, one more thing – please note that there is nothing here connecting the virgin birth with the title “Son of God.” We will see that phrase soon enough, but it is NOT a statement about Jesus’ parentage. OK, let’s move on!
Next up in Matthew 2 is weird little story about “wise men” following a star to find the child Jesus. We covered this story in greater detail in the Christmas show, so I’ll just recap: This is such a familiar story that we might easily lose sight of how crazy and subversive it is. Why are pagan astronomers – “abominations” according to Torah – following astrological signs to find the young messiah of Israel? The answer is pretty clear in the text, as Israel’s King Herod and the priests are plotting to kill the child. Matthew’s story, like the old book of Ruth or Jonah, or so many others, is a story of reversal and radical inclusion. If Israel won’t welcome her new king, then foreign outsiders will step in and see it done. Matthew is firing a warning shot here (and with the women in the genealogy), as if to say to his Jewish readers, “the story I’m telling is not safe, and is not intended to underwrite your assumptions or expectations.” This is deeply scandalous and subversive material.
Over the next few chapters, Matthew does something extraordinary with his storytelling. He presents a series of episodes about the young Jesus growing up and discovering his vocation as a prophet. But listen to this summary of chapters 2 through 4 and see if anything sounds familiar:
King Herod continues his campaign to find and kill any baby messiahs, so Jesus’ parents must flee to Egypt to keep him safe. (Matt 2:13-18)
In Egypt, Joseph receives a message in a dream telling him to take the family back to the land of Judea. (Matt 2:19-23)
A prophet named John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River (more about baptism in a minute). (Matt 3)
Jesus fasts in solitude in the wilderness (the desert), where he is tempted by “the devil.” (Matt 4:1-11)
Jesus begins a public campaign as a rabbi and prophet, inviting exactly twelve men to become his students. (Matt 4:12-22)
We’ll flesh out some of those details in a moment, but did anything strike you about those particular events in that particular order? In these three chapters, the story of Jesus looks an awful lot like the story of Israel! A flight to Egypt, a call to escape, passage through a body of water, wandering hardship in the desert, and the designation of twelve officers. Jesus is living out the story of Israel, from the Exodus to the Jordan River to the wilderness to the twelve tribes of Israel. None of the other gospels organize these same events in this same configuration, so what is Matthew’s point? Well, according to the visions and hopes of Daniel, Isaiah and the prophets, meshiach will have to be Israel’s true representative, taking her burdens and dreams onto himself. In Matthew’s logic, Jesus has to become Israel before he can rescue it. A couple of clarifications about this material before we call it quits for today.
First, a word about “baptism.” There’s lots of disagreement today about what exactly baptism is, and the bible is short on details. A prophet named John, called “the Baptist” is calling Jews out into the wilderness and dunking them in the water. On the one hand, this is basically a pre-existing Jewish ritual of ceremonial cleanliness. But in the details we realize how politically controversial this movement must have been. John is inviting the children of Israel to pass through the Jordan River, and telling them the “Kingdom of God is at hand.” We’ll have a lot more to say about the phrase “Kingdom of God” next time, but let’s feel the full weight of what John is doing: He is reenacting the Exodus, and thereby symbolically constituting a “New Israel.” Remember, the original Hebrews escaping from Egypt crossed the Red Sea, but the generation which finally made it into the Promised Land had their own crossing adventure right here at the Jordan. And when Jesus shows up and subjects himself to John’s baptism, he is endorsing John’s “New Israel” project and putting himself at the center of it. Matthew tells us a voice thundered out of the sky saying, “This is my beloved son, which fills me with joy.” This adds yet another dimension to Jesus’ baptism – now it is like the public anointing and vetting of the kings of ancient Israel. Jesus is almost ready to start messiah-ing. Almost…
Finally today, what’s this about Jesus in the desert being “tempted” by “the devil?” This is one of those literary hot potatoes, with some dismissing it as a fairy tale, others explaining it away as a psychological experience, and still others insisting it is a literal battle between Jesus and the satan. If you’re not familiar with the text, the “devil” tempts the fasting Jesus with three offers: 1) turn these stones into bread, 2) throw yourself off a cliff and see if God saves you, and 3) bow down and worship me. Jesus resists all three temptations with quotes from Deuteronomy, and the encounter is over. It’s a very strange episode which raises countless questions, but our old friend literature provides us with some very helpful insight.
On close inspection, we discover that all three of the devil’s “temptations” or “trials” have textual connections to trials faced by the Israelites when they wandered in the wilderness. Turning rocks into bread evokes the manna the Israelites found in the desert when they were starving, an opportunity for gratitude that they passed up for more grumbling. Putting God “to the test” is a direct reference to Moses’ warning to the desert wanderers when they demanded a display of God’s rescuing power. And finally, the invitation to “bow down” and worship the enemy is a direct echo of the incident with the golden calf the impatient Israelites set up for themselves in the desert. In all three cases Jesus – Matthew’s candidate for messiah and “true Israelite” – manages to overcome the very same temptations which caused his ancestors to stumble and sin those thousands of years earlier. Whatever else this story is about, it is clearly part of Matthew’s Jesus-as-Israel agenda.
If this formula wasn’t clear enough, Matthew bridges his introductory material and his gospel proper with one more very familiar type of event: in chapter 5, Jesus will go up on a “mountain” and start talking about laws and commandments. The New Moses will offer a New Torah, or at least a new way to think about Torah. We’ll start there next time.
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.