[O]ne must quest for the historical Jesus by accounting for the interpretations of the Gospels, not by dismissing them and certainly not by fragmenting them.Footnote 1
Could it be that some of the Matthean “systematizations” (or “nonsystematizations”) of Jesus might be very close to Jesus himself, just because they are constructions of a Jew who was temporally and culturally close to him?Footnote 2
In a letter to John Adams dated to October of 1813, Thomas Jefferson writes about his desire to retrieve the “very words only of Jesus” from the gospels.Footnote 3 Jefferson describes the process of recovering these “genuine”Footnote 4 sayings as picking out “diamonds from the dunghills.”Footnote 5 His selection process is governed by certain assumptions. For one thing, Jefferson is convinced that Jesus’s followers badly misrepresented their master’s teachings. He talks of “paring off” the material in the gospel narratives that originated from them. In addition, Jesus is understood to be opposed to his Jewish contemporaries; Jefferson says that Jesus came to reform the “wretched depravity” of Jewish morality.Footnote 6 In all of this, Jefferson anticipates, albeit in a crude way, much of what would later be viewed as standard fare in historical Jesus research.
Jefferson’s account of his historical method serves as a helpful launching point for this study. While most of those engaged in the quest for the historical Jesus no longer pit the man from Nazareth against his Jewish heritage, Jesus scholarship is still often conceived of in binary terms that are remarkably similar to Jefferson’s stated goals: the historian typically seeks to sift the “authentic” material in our sources from the “inauthentic.” By means of the “criteria of authenticity,” tools that emerged out of form and redaction criticism,Footnote 7 historians seek to clear away the strata of later interpretive layers from our sources and dig out the “diamonds,” that is, the material that represents the original, uninterpreted Jesus.Footnote 8
The goal of this study is not to argue that traditions formerly viewed as “authentic” should be moved to the “inauthentic” category – or vice versa. Rather, this work makes a bolder claim: Jesus scholarship should rethink the very way it has used the Gospel of Matthew. In particular, this study will ask what a close analysis of Matthew’sFootnote 9 overall presentation might contribute to our understanding of Jesus’s relationship to the temple. The approach taken here reflects certain important developments in biblical studies that represent important shifts in scholarship.
Critical Scholarship’s History of Antisemitism
If there is one thing that all contemporary Jesus scholars agree about, it is this: the historical Jesus must be identified as a Jewish figure. This is a shift in emphasis that should be celebrated. Indeed, many scholars today remain unaware of the pervasive influence that antisemitism has had on modern biblical criticism. For example, it is rarely remembered that Julius Wellhausen, a pioneering figure in modern biblical studies, once made Jesus’s un-Jewishness axiomatic, making the following outrageous and despicable assertion: “One may regard the non-Jewish in [Jesus], the human, as more characteristic than the Jewish.”Footnote 10
It would be a serious error to dismiss Wellhausen’s expressions of antisemitism as inconsequential or to think that such attitudes have only been exhibited by those on the margins of critical scholarship. Other figures known for their towering influence on the field could be mentioned.Footnote 11 For instance, Gerhard Kittel, whose name is inseparable from the influential Theological Dictionary of the New Testament that he edited, was an active member of the Nazi Party, spoke in defense of Hitler’s response to the “Jewish problem,” and was even the Führer’s guest of honor at a Nazi Party convention.Footnote 12 He went on to write a work detailing potential solutions to the “Jewish problem” in which he first considers – in appallingly explicit terms – the possibility of mass extermination.Footnote 13 Though he rejects this as an unviable option, his cold and objective analysis is blood-curdling. Nowhere does Kittel raise a single moral objection to the plan; it is simply deemed impractical.Footnote 14 From the outset of his career, it is clear that Kittel’s work attempted to cast Jesus as a figure in conflict with his Jewish contemporaries.Footnote 15 He would go on to explain that in announcing himself as the fulfillment of God’s kingdom, Jesus “ceases to be a Jew, and his proclamation ceases to be a member of Judaism.”Footnote 16
Wellhausen and Kittel are worth mentioning because their names are still well known in biblical scholarship. Yet many others who were influential in their own day but largely forgotten today could also be discussed here.Footnote 17 Suffice it to say, this aspect of the history of the guild is so embarrassing and uncomfortable, it is common for scholars to pass over it in silence. It can be too conveniently brushed under the rug with the term “the No Quest period.”Footnote 18 The renewed emphasis on Jesus’s Jewishness, then, is an important corrective that should be celebrated.
Jesus vs. the Temple?
Nevertheless, on its own, appealing to Jesus as a “Jew” only goes so far. Scholars now recognize that the Second Temple Jewish world was characterized by diverse practices and beliefs. Given this reality, insisting broadly that Jesus was “a Jew” clarifies little. As Simon Joseph explains: “The problem with the rhetorical appeal to Jesus’s Jewishness, therefore, is not that it is incorrect. The problem is that it is insufficient: it does not tell us enough.”Footnote 19 A more penetrating question is: What kind of Jew was Jesus?
James Crossley rightly observes that in recent decades the appeal to Jesus’s Jewishness has become “arguably the most dominant rhetorical generalization about the historical Jesus,” even to the point that it now is “something of a cliché.”Footnote 20 In particular, as Crossley points out, one notes that many attempts that seek to depict Jesus as “Jewish” end up explaining how he really was not “that Jewish” after all. Specifically, Crossley notes that this is often the case in regard to Jesus’s attitude toward the temple.
It is important to recognize that modern biblical scholarship, which has often been dominated by Protestant voices, has typically viewed the ritual dimension of ancient Israel’s faith and life as unpalatable.Footnote 21 Such prejudices can be traced back to the pioneers of the historical-critical methods themselves. For many of them, the liturgical traditions of first-century Jewish practice represented a degeneration of Israel’s religion and formed the very antithesis of the gospel message proclaimed by Jesus. He therefore has been portrayed as bringing about salvation not only from sin but also from sacrifice and priestly authority.Footnote 22 Jesus’s Jewishness may be celebrated, then, but only so long as he can be distanced from Jewish liturgical beliefs.
The Gospel of Matthew, however, presents a profound challenge to the notion that Jesus rejected the temple. Jesus is remembered there as endorsing the holiness of the temple’s sacrifices. To cite but one example, Matthew contains the following teaching from Jesus:
which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift holy [to thysiastērion to hagiazon to dōron]? Therefore, whoever swears by the altar [en tō thysiastēriō], swears by it and by everything that is on it. And whoever swears by the temple [en tō naō], swears by it and by the one who dwells in it.
Here the evangelist portrays Jesus as affirming God’s presence in the temple. What is more, Jesus also speaks about worship in a strikingly Jewish way. He affirms that it is the sacrificial altar itself that “makes the gift holy” (Matt 23:19; cf. Exod 29:37).Footnote 23 As we will see, scholars have often made the case that other statements in the gospel can be viewed as canceling out sayings like this one. We will examine them in detail later and show that they do no such thing. In short, Matthew undermines the conclusion that Jesus rejected the temple’s validity per se.
Of course, not all Jews in Jesus’s day accepted the legitimacy of the temple. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, indicate the existence of a community that withdrew from the Jerusalem cult. Could Jesus have agreed with Jews like them? I will have more to say about this. For now, let us simply make this observation: if Jesus was an Essene, the preceding statement regarding the holiness of the temple and its altar would be difficult to attribute to him. Those who viewed the Jerusalem sanctuary as illegitimate would hardly claim that its altar made sacrificial gifts holy, and that God dwelled in it. Yet this brings us to another key development in scholarship that informs our study: the pluriform nature of Jewishness after 70 ce.
Jewish Partings and the Gospel of Matthew
Jewish Partings after 70 ce
As mentioned previously, the variegated nature of Jewishness in the Second Temple period is well recognized. In the 1980s and 1990s, this represented an advance in scholarship. Previous research had failed to appreciate the diversity that existed in this period. Now, however, another shift is taking place, this time with respect to the post-70 ce period. Shaye Cohen sums up the traditional view: “With the destruction of the Temple the primary focal point of Jewish sectarianism disappeared… For most Jews … sectarian self-definition ceased to make sense after 70.”Footnote 24 This understanding, however, has been widely abandoned. The assumption that rabbis quickly consolidated power after the temple’s destruction in 70 ce and brought an end to Jewish sectarianismFootnote 25 is now receiving sharp criticism.
Daniel Schwartz writes that the latest research “minimizes rabbinic authority both before and after 70 and tends to leave the priests regnant before 70 – and, the way things are going, may soon enthrone them after 70, too.”Footnote 26 Likewise, Anders Runesson writes, “There is a growing consensus today that the rabbis did not become dominant until the fourth century, possibly later.”Footnote 27 Jodi Magness spotlights various references in the rabbinic literature to unsettled sectarian controversies.Footnote 28 For instance, the condemnation of the Sadducees and Samaritans in the Mishnah suggests ongoing friction between these groups after 70 ce (cf. m. Nid. 4:2). Similarly, the Tosefta speaks of mînîm – a word used to describe Jewish groups – who gather in private houses of worship where improper rites are performed (t. Šabb. 13:5). Joshua Burns shows that some of the descriptions of mînîm bear remarkable similarities to the Essenes, who likely did not simply vanish immediately after the temple was destroyed.Footnote 29 Regardless of what one makes of Burns’ evaluation of the data, the broader point is hard to dispute: Jewish divisions were not erased in the final decades of the first century but continued to endure long after the New Testament books were written.
In addition, it is now widely accepted that the rabbinic literature presents us with an idealized view of the rabbis’ influence over synagogues.Footnote 30 “Rabbinic Judaism” cannot simply be equated with “the synagogue.” For one thing, synagogues were usually run by synagogue rulers, not rabbis.Footnote 31 What is more, there was no monolithic synagogue network in the late first century. Anders Runesson has shown that while some synagogues served as municipal centers, others involved voluntary associations.Footnote 32 For example, Philo says that Essenes gathered in “sacred spots which they call synagogues [hoi kalountai synagōgai].”Footnote 33 Shaye Cohen explains, “Synagogues were not beholden to any central body; every community ran its synagogue in its own way.”Footnote 34
The primitive Jesus movement should be located within this variegated Jewish environment. There can be little doubt that the earliest believers saw themselves as Jews. In his letters, Paul insists that he is a Jew (cf., e.g., Rom 3:9; Rom 11:1, 14; Gal 2:15). Likewise, in the book of Acts, Paul maintains his identity as a Pharisee long after encountering the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. Before the ruling council, he declares, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee” (Acts 23:6). He goes on later to explain that he worships the God of Israel in accord with the Torah and Prophets, “according to the Way, which they call a sect [kata tēn hodon hēn legousin hairesin]” (Acts 24:14). In Acts, we also learn that early believers were known as “the sect [haireseōs] of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5; cf. Acts 15:5). The same terminology of “sect” is also used in Josephus to describe the Pharisees (Life 10; 12; 191) and the Sadducees (Ant. 13, 171; 20, 199). All of this indicates that the author of Acts believed the early community was Jewish in nature.
To speak of a “parting of the ways” between “Judaism” and “Christianity” is therefore inadequate. It implies a normative understanding of Jewishness that did not exist in the first century. Even after 70 ce, there were partings within the Jewish world. The complexities involved are discussed in a recent collection of essays, aptly titled The Ways That Often Parted.Footnote 35 The editors explain: “The unifying thesis of this volume is that Christianity’s eventual distinction from Judaism was messy and multiform, occurring at different paces in diverse geographies with varied literary resources, theological commitments, historical happenstance, and political maneuvering.”Footnote 36 This has enormous implications for both Matthew studies and Jesus research.
For some time now, there has been a raging debate in Matthean studies over whether or not the Gospel’s original readers viewed themselves as “within Judaism” (the so-called intra muros view) or “outside Judaism” (the so-called extra muros view).Footnote 37 David Sim writes that the question of Matthew’s social location “is now without question the dominant theme in Matthean studies.”Footnote 38 Yet the developments in scholarship discussed above have unsettled the traditional ways scholars have approached the issue.Footnote 39 Asking whether Matthew’s community is “within Judaism” or “outside of Judaism” tends to ignore the pluriform nature of Jewishness in the first century. So as not to burden the reader, I will offer a very brief treatment of the matter in this section. A more detailed discussion of the Gospel’s Jewish character can be found in an Appendix at the end of the book.
To be sure, it is challenging to figure out how to speak of Matthew’s audience. Although a growing number of scholars recognize that the gospels were likely written with the hope of wide circulation,Footnote 40 this does not negate the reality that specific readers were probably nonetheless especially in view.Footnote 41 In the case of the Gospel of Matthew, the implied reader is expected to possess a deep familiarity not only with the scriptures of Israel but also with Jewish culture broadly.Footnote 42 In addition, the Gospel indicates that the disciples will be punished in synagogues (Matt 10:17). This suggests that members of Matthew’s audience would have understood themselves to be under synagogue authority and, therefore, as Jewish.Footnote 43 While Gentiles may be included in the readership, there can be little doubt that the Gospel exhibits a pronounced Jewish perspective. Because of these features, the Gospel “has almost always been understood in both church and academia, in one way or another, as the ‘Jewish’ gospel.”Footnote 44
In particular, Matthew’s strong emphasis on Torah observance seems indicative of Jewish priorities. For instance, Jesus’s insistence on the law’s enduring value in the Sermon on the Mount appears to have programmatic significance (cf. Matt 5:17–20).Footnote 45 Likewise, unlike the other Synoptics, Matthew shows a marked preoccupation with the problem of “lawlessness [anomia]” (cf. Matt 7:23; 13:41; 23:28; 24:12).Footnote 46 Anders Runesson is correct – Jesus’s problem with the Pharisees in the Gospel cannot be that they “keep the law or keep it too strictly. On the contrary, they simply do not keep it rigorously enough.”Footnote 47 Jesus says: “Whoever therefore loosens one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19). The implications for Jesus’s stance toward the law in Matthew would seem clear; Jesus kept the Torah in all of its details.Footnote 48 Even ancient and medieval writers such as Thomas Aquinas caught this meaning. Commenting on this passage, Aquinas affirms, “Christ conformed his conduct in all things to the precepts of the law.”Footnote 49
Matthew alone reports that Jesus wore a “tassel” (kraspedon) on his garment, a detail that suggests his attention to the Torah’s precepts (Matt 14:36; cf. Num 15:38–39).Footnote 50 In addition, in following Mark’s report that Jesus told the disciples to pray that their eschatological flight to the mountains would not happen during the winter, Matthew adds that they should ask that it not occur on the Sabbath (Matt 24:20; cf. Mark 13:18). Other details also point to the evangelist’s Jewish outlook. For instance, of the canonical gospels, only Matthew has Jesus mention the use of phylacteries (Matt 23:5), which we now know were likely already in use in Jesus’s day.Footnote 51
At the same time, there are passages in the Gospel that appear to be in tension with Jewish sensibilities. What more recent works are showing, however, is that many of these passages make good sense against the backdrop of the sort of Jewish partings mentioned above. For example, some have argued that the frequent appearance of the phrase “their synagogues [tais synagōgais autōn]” in Matthew (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 10:17; 12:9; 13:34; cf. Matt 23:34) are indicative of a break with “Judaism.”Footnote 52 This assumption rests on flawed premises about the nature of first-century synagogues. Jewishness did not have a monolithic expression and there was no central authority governing the various synagogues. The phrase “their synagogues” likely points to conflict between Jesus’s disciples and certain Jewish synagogues.Footnote 53 The term usually rendered, “church” (ekklēsia), is repeatedly used in Jewish sources to describe public assemblies,Footnote 54 which seems to have included synagogue gatherings.Footnote 55 Matthew’s language of “church” (ekklēsia, Matt 16:18; 18:15, 17) cannot, therefore, be proffered as positive evidence that the community had severed all ties to synagogues. Amy-Jill Levine maintains that one must acknowledge that, for Matthew, “synagogues are a place of hostility, not hospitality.”Footnote 56 This is difficult to dispute. Yet even if Matthew writes to a community that feels unwelcome in synagogues broadly, this does not necessarily mean that it saw itself as non-Jewish. It only confirms something we already know: “Jewishness” was contested.
Similarly, Jesus’s harsh words in Matthew about the Pharisees and other Jews who reject his message cannot be taken as proof of “anti-Judaism.” As John Kampen observes, similar denunciations of Israel are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.Footnote 57 Those who were not part of the Qumran community are viewed as being under the power of Belial (CD-A [Damascus Document] 4:12–13). They too, it is said, will face destruction (CD-A 8:1–2). In short, Jesus’s teaching in Matthew sits comfortably alongside the kind of intramural polemics we find in other ancient Jewish sources. These divisions did not disappear by the late first century, the period in which most scholars believe Matthew’s Gospel was written.
Other features of Matthew that have been held up as evidence of the Gospel’s supposed non-Jewish character have similarly been debunked. For instance, that the evangelist interprets the oracle concerning the royal figure in Zechariah 9 as depicting two animals is not clear evidence of his ignorance of Hebrew. Jewish rabbis interpreted the passage similarly.Footnote 58 The evangelist even provides more literal renderings of the Hebrew scriptures than what is found in the Septuagint.Footnote 59 Likewise, passages that have been interpreted as indicating that the church “replaces” Israel have misconstrued Jesus’s teaching (see the Appendix for a fuller discussion). Recognizing all of this, Matthean scholars generally agree that the Gospel is best situated “within Judaism,” acknowledging its variegated nature.Footnote 60 Rodney Reeves sums up the state of Matthew studies well when he writes: “most scholars contend that Matthew’s Gospel was written by a Jew for Jews.”Footnote 61
The Gospel of Matthew and the Historical Jesus
Our preceding discussion has important implications for Jesus research. It is often assumed that Mark, the earliest canonical gospel, must be more reliable than Matthew. Yet, as John Kloppenborg says, “Tradition-history is not convertible with literary history.”Footnote 62 Similarly, Mark Goodacre writes:
[the] basic assumption, that earliest is best, is open to challenge. A truer word may be spoken by one who long post-dates the events he or she is describing than by one who writes closer to those same events.Footnote 63
Literary priority does not necessarily equal historiographical superiority. In fact, that Matthew provides us with a more reliable portrait than Mark in certain places is not merely possible but probable. This is especially the case when it comes to areas involving Jewish concerns.
For instance, in narrating Jesus’s debate with the Pharisees over the custom of handwashing, Mark tells us, “For the Pharisees, and all the Jews [pantes hoi Ioudaioi], do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3). Mark, however, is probably overgeneralizing here. Contrary to what the evangelist says, it is unlikely that “all Jews” washed their hands before meals. Josephus tells us that the Sadducees did not observe the traditions of the Pharisees (Ant. 13.297). As Matthew Thiessen shows, handwashing was likely among the traditions unique to the Pharisees.Footnote 64 In his version of the story, Matthew omits Mark’s line about what “all Jews” did.
In Mark, Jesus goes on to say: “Do you not understand that whatever goes into a person from outside is not able to defile because it enters not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Mark 7:18). The evangelist then offers an interpretation of Jesus’s saying: “Thus he declared all foods clean [katharizōn panta ta brōmata]” (Mark 7:19).Footnote 65 For many, Mark’s statement means that Jesus has abolished the kosher laws.Footnote 66 As we will discuss later, whether this accurately captures Mark’s intention is debated.Footnote 67 Either way, Matthew’s decision to leave the line out is surely remarkable. At the very least, one can see how Mark’s assertion would appear to conflict with a crucial emphasis of Matthew’s Gospel, namely, that the Torah has enduring value. In Matthew 5, for example, Jesus proclaims, “Whoever therefore loosens one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19). Scholars, therefore, routinely observe that Matthew likely intentionally omits Mark’s statement that Jesus “declared all foods clean” out of the concern that it might give the impression that Jesus has come to “abolish” the law (cf. Matt 5:17).Footnote 68
As mentioned above, however, not all are convinced that Mark intends to present Jesus as annulling the food laws. According to Matthew Thiessen, within Jesus’s Jewish setting it would simply be assumed that the Torah’s kosher regulations were normative. Therefore, instead of portraying him as announcing that the law’s clear dietary code has suddenly been rendered obsolete, Jesus should be seen as addressing a question that was debated among Jews in the first century: Can one be defiled by consuming clean foods that have been touched by unclean hands? Jesus is not weighing in on whether Jews can start eating pork or shellfish contrary to the Torah but on whether one is defiled by consuming (kosher) foods with unwashed hands. Thiessen argues Matthew better clarifies the meaning of the pericope.Footnote 69 Not only does Matthew omit Mark’s potentially confusing statement that Jesus “declared all foods clean,” the Matthean version concludes with a statement from Jesus that spotlights the heart of the issue: “But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” (Matt 15:20).
That Jesus should be understood as entering an intra-Jewish debate about purity rather than as simply annulling the food laws is supported by another aspect of Matthew’s report: the evangelist depicts the Pharisees and scribes as the ones offended by Jesus’s teaching (Matt 15:12). If Jesus is being portrayed as abrogating the Torah’s food laws altogether, one would expect all the Jews, not merely the Pharisees, to be taken aback by Jesus’s words. In the book of Acts, for instance, Peter is appalled at the prospect of consuming unclean food (Acts 10:14). The idea of eating nonkosher foods is presented not only as new to the fisherman but also as offensive to him. Although this comes from a different New Testament source, it further supports the idea that Jesus’s Jewish disciples believed the Torah’s kosher laws were to be observed. All of this reinforces the view that Matthew is clearer than Mark about how Jesus’s teaching would have been heard in a Jewish milieu. W. D. Davies and Dale Allison are therefore likely correct that the Matthean report, “is probably closer to Jesus’s teaching than Mark’s account.”Footnote 70
Sim also makes the case that given what we know of the earliest community in Jerusalem, Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’s strong insistence on faithfulness to the law would seem to reflect the commitments of his initial Jewish followers.Footnote 71 This community appears to have been especially devoted to the law (cf. Gal 2:12; Acts 21:17–26). Others have also noted that features in Matthew which “re-Judaize” Jesus may well be due to the evangelist’s connection to these early followers. This is tantalizing. It suggests that Matthew might help us to better understand Jesus’s Jewishness, a vitally important aspect of any historical portrait of him.Footnote 72
One example of this can be found in the way Matthew appears to downplay Mark’s descriptions of Jesus’s activity in gentile regions.Footnote 73 Matthew retains Mark’s report of a visit by Jesus to the gentile territory beyond the Sea of Galilee (cf. Mark 8:1–10; Matt 8:34), but he edits the account. Whereas Mark tells us that Jesus entered the region of Tyre and healed a gentile woman’s daughter after he “entered a house [eiselthōn eis oikian]” (Mark 7:24), Matthew simply indicates that a Canaanite woman “came out [exelthousa] from that region” to petition Jesus’s help (Matt 15:22). Matthew therefore downplays the implication that Jesus went into gentile territory and visited a non-Israelite’s house.Footnote 74 Without appealing to specific criteria of “authenticity,” Sim argues that Matthew’s sensitivities here likely better reflect Jewish concerns Jesus himself likely had.
We can also mention here other details where Matthew seems closer to historical verisimilitude. Mark tells us that the Roman soldiers mocked Jesus by dressing him in “purple [porphyran]” (Mark 15:17); Matthew says he was given a “scarlet cloak [chlamyda kokkinēn]” (Matt 27:28).Footnote 75 Though the two colors were very similar, Matthew’s version better describes the garb of Roman soldiers and is therefore deemed more historically probable by Davies and Allison.Footnote 76
This study does not argue that Matthew necessarily always best reflects history. Nevertheless, the long-standing assumption that the historian will discover Jesus only by distinguishing him from the beliefs of his followers overlooks what should now be recognized as a crucial oversight: Jesus’s earliest followers were Jewish. To define Jesus as “dissimilar to Christianity” involves a fatally flawed move – it places him in opposition to the very kinds of Jews to whom he appealed the most. With this observation we come to one last issue that must be addressed: the question of methodology.
We began with Thomas Jefferson’s account of the historian’s craft. In Monticello, arriving at the “genuine” sayings of Jesus meant separating them out from the larger narratives of the gospels. More contemporary Jesus scholars, however, are calling into question such a project. A few developments are worth highlighting here.
First, while the limitations of the so-called criteria of authenticity – multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, etc. – have long been recognized, their ability to function effectively as “critical controls” is now increasingly questioned.Footnote 77 Many now believe their weaknesses outweigh their strengths. In addition, we will look at an even more fundamental problem with their use: they typically attempt to isolate traditions from the interpretive frameworks of the gospel narratives. The goal, then, is to arrive at an uninterpreted Jesus. Yet, as recent work in memory studies has emphasized, seeking an uninterpreted past is not possible.
Dale Allison also makes an especially important observation: even material deemed “inauthentic” can preserve important impressions made by Jesus. For example, Allison discusses the Synoptic narrative of Jesus’s conflict with Satan in the wilderness. For Allison, the report is “haggadic fiction.”Footnote 78 Nevertheless, he insists that accounts of this encounter underscore a key aspect of Jesus’s identity frequently repeated in our sources, namely, that he saw himself engaged in a conflict with demonic forces.Footnote 79 Instead of dismissing it as irrelevant, Allison insists the episode raises a valuable question: Why was Jesus remembered in this way? Allison suggests the temptation scene preserves impressions made by Jesus himself, that is, the perception that he was engaged in a spiritual struggle with evil powers. Allison writes, “fiction need not be pure fiction … fiction can indeed preserve the past.”Footnote 80
Similarly, Ulrich Luz examines Matthew’s insistence that Jesus upheld the value of the law. Regardless of its authenticity, Luz rightly notes that it should not be written off as insignificant to the historian. Here we can return to a line from him that was quoted at the beginning of the chapter. He asks, “Could it be that some of the Matthean ‘systemizations’ (or ‘nonsystematizations’) of Jesus might be very close to Jesus himself, just because they are constructions of a Jew who was temporally and culturally close to him?”Footnote 81 This study seeks to offer a rigorous and thoughtful reflection on the suggestion Luz makes. After looking at methodological issues (Chapter 2), our study will ask similar questions relating to Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’s teachings regarding the temple. The chapters of this monograph, then, are not intended as stand-alone studies but build upon one another.
First, we will ask whether Jesus accepted the legitimacy of the temple and its sacrificial rites, as passages such as the one quoted from Matthew 23 earlier imply (Chapter 3). Matthew includes statements that have been seen as canceling out the evidence that Jesus affirmed the temple’s validity. For example, Matthew has Jesus quote from the book of Hosea, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6; cf. Matt 9:13; Matt 12:7). How can material such as this sit alongside other teachings of Jesus in Matthew that seem to affirm the temple’s holiness. What might Matthew’s arrangement of this material tell us about Jesus’s own outlook?
Going on, we will ask another question: If Jesus did endorse the temple’s holiness, would this undermine the likelihood that he envisioned its coming destruction (Chapter 4)? Some argue that Matthew portrays Jesus as changing his stance toward the temple once he arrives in the Jerusalem. I will argue that such explanations overlook key features of Matthew’s presentation. Moreover, I will make the case that Matthew’s presentation of all this has important implications for understanding the historical Jesus.
Furthermore, Jesus’s teaching about the temple in Matthew seems related to his own self-understanding (Chapter 5). Within a Jewish framework, this makes sense. Here I contend that we once again find important data for reconstructing a historical portrait of Jesus.
Finally, I will show that Matthew frequently depicts Jesus as applying temple and priestly imagery to himself and to his disciples (Chapter 6). I will then show that this is consistent with other sources (Chapter 7). While some have used such traditions to argue that Jesus rejected the validity of the temple, I will show that this is unlikely. Nonetheless, I will also explain why it makes sense to think that Jesus himself employed such imagery. In sum, Matthew’s interpretive framework should not necessarily be viewed as a hurdle to the project of critically reconstructing the historical portrait of Jesus. In certain cases, it should instead be viewed as providing some vital clues. At the outset of this chapter I quoted Chris Keith, who rightly observes that “one must quest for the historical Jesus by accounting for the interpretations of the Gospels, not by dismissing them and certainly not by fragmenting them.”Footnote 82 This study attempts to show what such an approach to questing for Jesus looks like.
History and Surprises
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both passed away on the same date: July 4, 1826.Footnote 83 The coincidence is remarkable. Two of America’s “founding fathers” died exactly fifty years to the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. If this historical datum was analyzed according to the conventional canons of Jesus research, many, employing a kind of “criterion of dissimilarity,” would likely assume that this convergence is the result of later American propaganda. Yet that is one of the delights of historical research – it is full of surprises.
Jesus historians must be careful evaluators of our sources about Jesus. At the same time, they should also be prepared for surprises. One of them, I propose, is that Matthew’s presentation is more helpful to the quest than previously realized. The reason this has been obscured, however, is due to methodological presuppositions. As mentioned previously, scholars are now challenging the standard tools scholars have used to reconstruct the historical Jesus. We now turn, therefore, to the issue of methodology.