Friday, August 18, 2017

Uniquely Matthew


Reading gospel accounts in parallel is sometimes used to blur the differences in perspective between the evangelists, seeking to harmonise the texts and find a definitive historical account of what happened. No such thing exists because every account is biased and limited. You simply can't record everything. You have to hold a vantage point. And that's not a problem.

Matthew, Mark and Luke take a very different vantage point to John who was of course an eyewitness himself of the events. Comparing the text of Matthew, Mark and Luke across the death and resurrection of Jesus yields two steps.

Firstly, the common ground. All three accounts tell of...
  • Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross…. · 
  • Jesus labelled as King of the Jews…. · 
  • Criminals crucified with Jesus… · 
  • Darkness in the daytime… · 
  • Jesus' loud final cry… 
  • The women who witnessed Jesus death, and Jesus' burial… · 
  • The tomb lent to Jesus by Joseph of Arimithea… · 
  • The women who went to the tomb on the morning of the third day...
  • The empty tomb...
If you want harmonised 'facts' - these are those.

A different story isn’t the Christian faith. The plot is common to all four gospels – Jesus dies on the first day (Thursday evening to Friday evening), is dead through the second day (Friday evening to Saturday evening), and is physically raised from the dead and witnessed on the third day (Saturday evening to Sunday evening).

You can try to exclude the Bible from being valid evidence but what are you hiding from? The documentary evidence is strong – at least as good, if not better, than anything else in antiquity. Not to mention, the very existence of the church has to have come from somewhere. And if it didn’t come from where it claims to – from the events of this Passover weekend you need to find a more compelling, more backed up alternative.

What do you do with what happened? It's not about what we want, or how we feel about life... here is something that happened of a magnitude that, if true, it changes everything.

Flip things around and look for differences. It's immediately obvious that Mark is the most brief while Matthew and Luke are longer in different places. There is a little material that is uniquely Mark, a fair amount that is unique to Luke which you can explore here.

To look for the differences I simply copy and paste from biblegateway into a three column table, I find it helpful to put matching sections next to each other in new rows as it helps to highlight where the differences are... a colour highlight (or printing it out and doing that by hand) does the rest. You'll see a picture of what that looks like on paper in the link to the cross in Luke's gospel. You can also pick up the Bible Harmony tool in http://www.e-sword.net/  which has these already collated.

A bit of work shows what is unique to Matthew's account from Matthew 27:32-28:20, simply because I've been asked to speak on these chapters in a couple of months time. Three themes, in five sections that only Matthew records.
1. Matthew tells us about the earth being shaken - 27v51-52 and 28v2-4. When Jesus dies and when the tomb is opened on Easter Sunday, Matthew tell us that the earth shakes. The earth shaking is something that happens in the Bible. In Judges 5v4 – earth shaking is about the Lord coming. In 2 Sam 22v8, Psalm 18v7 – earth shaking is the Lord’s anger. In Isaiah 14v16 the earth shaking is kingdoms trembling. When the earth shakes here is surely evokes all of these things, and marks the raising from the dead of many who are seen in the city, and from Easter Sunday, Jesus himself being raised and witnessed. 
2. Matthew tells us about the conspiracy of the authorities - 27v62-66 and 28v11-15. They seek to prevent the grave being robbed so Jesus' disciples can't say he's alive. And then when those soldiers are terrified by the visiting angel they pay off the guards to say the body was stolen by the disciples. It's a pitiful attempt to prevent the spread of this good news. There's no harm in raising questions about the Christian faith but the story stands. The God who has stepped in and shaken the earth is open to scrutiny, but if you put this God in the dock you might find yourself on trial... or as the story has it, "in this gallery it is not the paintings that are being judged, but the visitors..." 
3. Matthew tells us about hope for the world - 28v16-20. Luke has similar material about Jesus with his disciples in Jerusalem, but Matthew tells us about a mountain side meeting, not for the first time. The disciples of Jesus are commissioned as disciple-makers. To go to all nations (as Luke also reports), to make disciples, to teach and baptise. And they do it knowing that his authority sends them and his presence goes with them. 
At the end of Matthew we see the filling up of God's story. Peter Leithart, in his book The Four, observes that Matthew's gospel begins by introducing 'the beginning' like the start of Genesis, and it ends here at the end of Matthew 28 with words that echo the final words of the Old Testament (in it's original order) from 2 Chronicles - where Cyrus tells the people to "go!" 
The new and true king commissions his people to go so that the global dwelling of God can be established among his people in his world.  
If we only had Luke, Mark and John we'd miss these emphases around the cross and resurrection, though doubtless the themes arise elsewhere in the Bible. By giving us four narratives, the Holy Spirit, gives us the opportunity to see more of what is happening at the cross, to slow down, to inhabit the moment, and to distinguish the different, complementing melodies of the gospel.

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