Matthew’s gospel is a tough one to crack. With the other evangelists and Paul I’m in a comfort zone. I can see how the factions work. But the question of Matthew’s relationship to “Judaism” — whether his community was sectarian or involved in a nasty intra-synagogue dispute — can be answered either way. Cases for both sides have been impressive.
Philip Esler has been on both sides. Back in the ’80s he maintained that the Mattheans differed from the other gospel (and Pauline) communities in a serious way. Following the authority of Peter (Mt 16:18; Gal 2:11-14), they refused to engage in mixed table-fellowship, indicated by the way Matthew revises his Markan source in Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30. The Markan woman legitimates mixed table-fellowship by saying that even the dogs under the table eat from the children’s scraps, but Matthew’s revision has her speaking of dogs eating scraps falling from the master’s table — meaning that the children (Jews) and dogs (Gentiles) no longer eat the same bread. (See his Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts, pp 91-93). The “dogs”, for Matthew, appear to be saved apart from the chosen who remain a light to the nations in their own way.
But Esler has come around. In his new essay, “Intergroup Conflict and Matthew 23: Towards Responsible Historical Interpretation of a Challenging Text” (Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol 45 No 1, pp 38–59), he argues that the Matthean community engaged in mixed table fellowship (based on Mt 8:10-11) just like the other gospel communities, and that these Christians considered themselves separated from the Judeans. (“Judeans” being the more accurate term for Jews during the first century — a point to which I’ll return at the end.) The key is that Matthew is working on two temporal levels. He situates Jesus within the timeframe of his actual ministry to Israel, with his message for post-70 Christians often working in tension with that setting. In the case of Mt 23, verse 1 says that Jesus is addressing both the crowds and the disciples. The next two verses read,
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, and so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.”
“Here,” says Esler, “Jesus is speaking in a manner dramatically appropriate to the crowds in the time of his mission to Israel and ironically for post-Easter Christ-followers“. (p 44) Passages like this don’t actually validate synagogue authority for the Mattheans, who by all indications mistrusted, hated, and/or feared Judean authorities.
Social-identity theorists like Daniel Bar-Tal have documented various delegitimization strategies used by groups who hate or fear others. Such strategies include dehumanization (labeling others as subhuman or demonic), trait characterization (portraying them so worthless as to be parasites or idiots), and outcasting (portraying their offenses so transgressive that it warrants calling them murderers, thieves, or maniacs in order to exclude them from society). Abusive invective like that fits Matthew 23:13-36 to a tee. Pharisees and scribes are “sons of snakes” (dehumanization), “blind guides” and “blind fools” (trait characterization), and full of “violence and rapacity” (outcasting).
Most striking, as Esler notes, are certain parallels with John’s gospel. Both evangelists flagrantly misrepresent Judeans. John ascribes to them a belief that they are actual “disciples” of Moses (Jn 9:27), which was never true. Matthew casts them as tight-asses on the question of salvation (Mt 23:13). For the historical Pharisees, righteousness conveyed the simple sense of privileged and blessed identity owing to descent from Abraham. Matthew’s view of righteousness (see Mt 5:20–48) is a lot like Paul’s reworking of the term: “an audacious attempt by Matthew to appropriate a primary expression of Judean identity” (p 51) by simply claiming that the Matthean Christians have it, not the Judeans.
On the other hand, neither John nor Matthew denies Judeans their Abramaic ancestry (as Paul did, by claiming that believers in Christ are the true sons of Abraham based on faith, regardless of ethnicity). They do something even more offensive, and turn it into something foul. For John, the sons of Abraham are sons of the devil (Jn 8:39,44). For Matthew, they are sons of snakes (Mt 23:32-33). The dehumanization strategy differs from Paul’s re-interpretive one.
But like Paul, Matthew elevates faith to an uncharacteristic level of importance. He accuses the Pharisees and scribes of “ignoring the weightier matters of the law — justice and mercy and faith” (Mt 23:23):
“Since when was faith one of the heavier aspects of the law? The word only appears once in the Septuagintal version of the Pentateuch, at Deuteronomy 32:20, where it means ‘faithfulness,’ a characteristic God taxes the Israelites in Sinai with lacking. On the other hand, it appears eight times in Matthew — its use at Matthew 23:23 representing the last instance of the word — and on each occasion it refers to a, perhaps the, fundamental characteristic of those aligning themselves to the new reality Jesus has announced (Matt 8:10; 9:2, 22, 29; 15:28; 17:20 and 21:21)… Jesus is accusing Judean leaders from the 30s of neglecting something which was actually crucial to Christ-movement identity towards the end of the first century. The manner in which faith is (very artificially) presented as an aspect of the law continues Matthew’s efforts to appeal to the Judean members of the Christ-movement.” (p 53)
This all starts to pile into a mountain: delegitimization strategies, ugly parallels with John, hints of mixed table-fellowship, outrageous misrepresentations (and appropriations) of Judean religion. It’s hard to make room for an intra-communal dispute here. I’m not sure what to do about Mt 15:21-28 anymore (which seems to imply separate table-fellowship), and would be curious to know what Esler makes of it on his newer view of Matthew.
Last but not least: Esler’s article serves as response to Amy-Jill Levine, who has objected to using “Judean” in place of “Jew” out of political fears. That’s no way to do history, and in my review of her book on the parables I showed how her anti-Jewish phobias get out of hand and torpedo what could have otherwise been fine analyses. Esler draws on the example of Cardinal Augustin Bea, who during Vatican II was intent on absolving Jews from the charge of killing Jesus. He wanted to interpret the New Testament texts historically to achieve this end, but was opposed by other cardinals on grounds that any document dealing favorably with the Jews risked pushing the church too much towards Israel and Zionism and causing problems in the Islamic world:
“If Bea had taken Levine’s approach, he would have succumbed to the blandishments of abandoning history in the interest of politics. But he did not. Instead, he insisted that the declaration had nothing to do with political questions. Yes, people might misinterpret a biblical text and manipulate it for political ends but we should not forsake our duty of accurate historical interpretation for that reason. In my view, Bea was right on this, and Levine is mistaken.” (p 57)
That’s right. We shouldn’t be bullied into silence for fear of appearing anti-Semitic (Esler), Islamophobic (Bea), or whatever prejudices people like to manufacture to cover their own insecurities. If bigots want to abuse historical facts, that’s a different conversation. The same holds true for abuses in science (like Social Darwinism). You correct the abuse, not the facts themselves. As I’ve been pointing out frequently on this blog, the problem of manufactured bigotry is huge in contemporary discussions of Islam; depicting the violence, hatred, intolerance, and expansionism inherent in Islam supposedly makes one hateful in turn. But that’s not true. Honest and intelligent critics of Islam like Bill Maher and Sam Harris are not bigoted demagogues like Terry Jones and Phil Robertson.
The ethnic betrayal in Matthew is very real. I’m moving toward (the new) Esler’s view of this gospel as a sectarian one in which the Christians stood at a considerable distance from Judeans and flamed them out of disgust, hate, and fear.
The “betrayal” of scholars who refer to first-century Jews as Judeans, on the other hand, is imagined. While I often use the term “Jew” anyway (“Judean” may confuse readers who are unfamiliar with debates over terminology), I do believe that Philip Esler, Jack Elliott, and Steve Mason have advanced sound arguments for “Judeans” being the best word for those groups of people whose ancestors were Israelites and whose successors were Jews. Regardless of how this idea can be misused.