In the fourth episode of this series “The Words that Make the World“, Archbishop Mark Coleridge looks into Matthew and Luke’s depiction of the gospels.
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- Episode 4: Matthew and Luke's depiction of the gospels - Transcript
Episode 4: Matthew and Luke's depiction of the gospels - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
So welcome back to this exploration of how the New Testament took shape, these words that made the world. Last time we looked at the first of the four Gospels asking the question, why did Christianity turn to story? And we saw that it was obeying the deepest impulses of the Bible in doing so. And it was to meet the dramatic need of the church in Rome. At the time of the neronic persecutions in the mid-sixties.
Now, the question, therefore, is why did we need more Gospels? Because if the Gospel of Mark was as powerful as I have suggested, surely it was enough. But in time, the church came to see that there were new and dramatic needs that needed a different kind of response. Drawing upon the very potent biblical resource of story. But doing so in a different time and circumstance to meet a different human and pastoral need.
So again, I stress that these stories, the Gospels, are not ivory tower texts written in a kind of vacuum. They are written in the midst of the life of communities that are asking the deepest questions and facing the direst needs. Now, the other two Gospels that form what we call the synoptic tradition are Matthew and Luke. Now, the word synoptic means they see with the same eye, syn-op-sis from the Greek.
So, Matthew, Mark and Luke are often called the Synoptic Gospels. They see with the same eye. Now that they draw upon the same traditions is certain, but it’s a bit misleading to say that they see with the same eye. Because in fact, these are not biographies of Jesus. They are interpretations of Jesus to meet a particular need at a particular time. And each of them is quite different one from the other.
So, Matthew, Mark and Luke are quite different interpretations or portraits of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. And keep in mind, just by the way, that nothing in the Gospels is pre-Easter. Even though the story is told in that way. The whole story, all of the Gospel is in fact told in the light of Easter. So, nothing in the Gospels, in fact, is pre-Easter.
Now, when I talk about a portrait of Jesus, I’m thinking, well, if four different painters came into the room and painted your portrait or mine, they certainly wouldn’t come up with identical depictions. In other words, a good painting, at least, is not just a depiction, it’s an interpretation of the person.
So those four portraits would be in fact quite different. Seeing me or you from a different angle and in a different light, from a different perspective. Now, it’s exactly the same with Matthew, Mark and Luke. That they, different interpretations and often quite different interpretations. I think, for instance, of the way Mark depicts Jesus dying on the cross, shrouded in darkness and shrieking, my God, my God, why have you abandoned me? And Luke has Jesus a paragon of composure saying, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do, this sort of thing. So, the two interpretations of the death of Jesus that you find in the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Luke could hardly be more different.
But they are interpreting the same fact or phenomenon. See, the Bible doesn’t say the facts, the whole facts, and nothing but the facts. It does. It deals with the facts, but it’s more interested in what the facts mean, in other words, with interpretation. And that’s what you get in these stories that we call the Gospels.
Now, to understand the vastly changed circumstance that will produce the Gospel of Matthew and Luke. You have to understand the importance of what happened in 70 AD or BCE. Ah, CE I should say, the Common Era, AD or CE, the year 70 of the first century.
In that year you had the devastating destruction of Jerusalem that came as a kind of climax of what was called the Jewish war. The Jewish war began in 66 and concluded, kind of, with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. Although there was some resistance that lingered on until 72 or 73. Usually associated with the fortress of Masada.
Now, the Jewish war for the Roman Empire and its army was the same kind of embarrassment or even humiliation, that the Vietnamese war, the Vietnam War, became for America, the US. Rome was uniquely able to wage a pitched battle. No one could defeat Rome, certainly at this time in pitched battle. But what the Jewish war was not a pitched battle, again, like Vietnam. It was guerrilla warfare. And the Roman army, expert at pitched battle, struggled with guerrilla warfare.
So that eventually when they took Jerusalem, after a four year struggle and sending in their most powerful legions. The vengeance that Rome rort was in proportion to the humiliation that they had suffered. They absolutely flattened the city. And as a result, Judaism, as it had been, disappeared into the black hole of history. And the question was, would anything survive of Judaism? In fact, it did survive in the most extraordinary way, and I’ll come to that in a minute. But it was also a catastrophe for the primitive church. Because, you see, the mother church in the early days had unquestionably been the church in Jerusalem. So, the church in Jerusalem also just vanishes into a black hole. And the question is, where do we go from here?
Well, in fact, where Christianity went was across the Mediterranean. And found its new centre of gravity in the imperial capital of Rome. So that the bishop of Rome eventually assumes a kind of primacy, rather than shall we say, the bishop of Jerusalem. So, Christianity, its centre of gravity, moves across the Mediterranean from Jerusalem to Rome after the destruction of 70 AD.
The question of the survival of Judaism also became the question of the survival of Christianity. Keeping in mind that many had regarded Christianity as just another Jewish messianic sect. And one of the crucial questions of the early church, and you see this classically in Paul’s letters, is the question, is Christianity just another Jewish messianic sect, part of the synagogue, therefore, or is it some deeply related but distinct intervention of God so that the church is born from the synagogue but not part of it? The umbilical cord, as it were, has been cut.
Now Paul, comes very early to that understanding of the church. Not as part of Judaism, but as something born from the womb of Judaism, but something quite distinct. And that sense will ground his mission to the Gentiles. So, Christianity becomes increasingly a Gentile church. Because it understands itself not as part of Judaism, but as born from Judaism, as a distinct intervention of God. Expanding the kind of universality that includes all people in the embrace of God’s mercy, not just the Jewish people.
So, both, certainly Matthew’s gospel, if I could turn to that now. Becomes a response to this dramatic situation that Christianity faced after 70 AD and its destruction. Because you see, one of the things that Judaism does is draw the lines much more clearly and severely, between those who are in and those who are out.
The only elements that really survived within Judaism that could assume leadership were, interestingly, some of the Pharisees. So Pharisaic Judaism becomes dominant after the destruction. Because other groups within Judaism that had assumed leadership. Some of them we meet in the New Testament. Like the Sadducees, the old priestly aristocracy and so on. They had simply vanished. So, Pharisaic Judaism takes control, takes charge, and eventually gives birth to the extraordinary phenomenon that will become Rabbinic Judaism. Which begins a great historic arc. Really in many ways down to the Holocaust in the last century.
So, where the question of survival was at the heart of Judaism. You look back now, and you think it was an astonishing feat to create rabbinic Judaism out of the rubble of destruction. There’s something quite marvellous and majestic even about what was achieved from such a desperate situation. Now, the question. Many of those early Jewish Christians. And Matthew is a very Jewish Christian Gospel, by the way.
Many of them were both Jewish and Christian. They saw no contradiction in that. They understood their Christianity as a fulfilment of their Jewish identity, not as an abolition of it. So, in other words, to put it a bit crudely, they went to the synagogue on Saturday and to church on Sunday. And they saw no problem with that.
Now, however, after the destruction. Once Judaism decides for its own survival, that it needs to be much clearer about who’s in and who’s out. And start drawing lines as to who’s in and who’s out. Some of these Jewish Christians found themselves being, as it were, expelled from the synagogue. In other words, what was being said is, you can’t be both. You can’t come to the synagogue on Saturday and go to the church on Sunday. You’ve got to choose between the two. You’re with us or you’re with them. Now, this, to call it an expulsion from the synagogue that went on created a crisis. Because it was within Judaism that these Jewish Christians had met, had encountered the crucified and risen Christ. Who himself was Jewish. So, once they’re driven out of the synagogue where they go? And how do they hear the voice of Jesus. Or does Jesus, do they leave Jesus in the synagogue?
So, the whole question of survival and identity. Becomes very pressing for the Christian community, wherever it is. In this period. And I’m talking in the mid-eighties probably. So, some years, but not many years, after the destruction of 70. As the effects and the consequences really start to take effect.
Now, what Matthew decides to do to meet this. And again, we call him Matthew, but it’s anonymous the text as we have it. But what Matthew does is he takes the Gospel of Mark. That he knew Mark’s gospel is certain. So, you’ve got to imagine him sitting down at his desk or whatever it was. And on the desk, he has a number of resources. One of which is the Gospel of Mark.
There would be other collections of sayings and other records of various traditions that had been floating around because this is now 50 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. That’s quite a long time. And then with that catastrophic event, the watershed event of the destruction in 70 AD. So, he sits down with his raw materials as it were. He reads the Gospel of Mark, and he thinks, well, this is crucially important, but it’s not quite adequate to meet the needs of now.
So, what he does is he takes the story of Mark, he respects the storyline. And he picks up his scalpel, as it were, and he makes incisions in the storyline of Mark. And into those gaps that he creates with the incisions. He inserts long speeches of Jesus. Jesus talks much more in Matthew’s Gospel than he does in Mark.
So, you have for instance, the most famous of these discourses, as they’re called, or speeches that that Matthew inserts into the storyline of Mark is the Sermon on the Mount. Chapters 5 to 7, one of the most famous texts in the Bible, certainly the New Testament. So, the Sermon on the Mount.
But then later you have the mission discourse in chapters 9 to 11, more or less. You have the church discourse in chapter 18, you have the eschatological discourse in chapters 24 to 25. So, these are speeches of Jesus. So, the question was, how do we now hear the voice of Jesus? Who speaks with the unique authority that attaches to his voice? The voice we first heard in the synagogue.
Matthew says, you want to hear the voice of Jesus? You want to encounter the unique authority that attaches to his voice? Then enter the world of my story and listen to his voice. In other words, the claim of this Gospel and of any of the Gospels is when you walk into the world that is created by an author. You actually encounter Jesus Christ who’s not once upon a time, but he’s here and now.
In that sense, there’s a quasi-sacramental understanding of the text of the story. That it actually contains the real Jesus. This is not a fictional Jesus or a fantasy Jesus. You walk into this story world that is being created by Matthew in this case. And listen with the ear of faith. You will hear the voice of Jesus himself every bit as much as those who heard the original Sermon on the Mount up in Galilee.
And you see, we still read these texts now in that same belief. That it’s not once upon a time stuff we’re hearing. That this is the voice of Jesus himself here and now. So, in that sense, we may be, for Matthew’s community, we may be booted out of the synagogue. But we’re not cut off from the voice. Who is the fulfilment of Mosaic authority. You want to hear the fullness of Mosaic authority? Don’t think you’ve left it behind in the synagogue. The fullness of Mosaic authority is encountered in the voice of Jesus. And this is where Jesus going up onto the Mount to give the sermon is in part like Moses going up onto Mount Sinai to receive the law. But he’s also, Jesus is also like God on Mount Sinai, giving the law to Moses.
There’s all that kind of interplay between Old and New Testaments going on throughout, certainly throughout Matthew, who is very strong on this point that Jesus is the fulfilment of all to which the Old Testament looked. All of the prophecies find their fulfilment in Jesus. So don’t think that being booted out of the synagogue, you’re cut off from the source of eternal life that you have found in Jesus who is the new Moses.
So, Matthew then is addressing that particular dramatic situation. And writes a story that is in some ways like Mark. But is in other ways importantly different. Why? Because the situation of his community or communities was itself different. And again, the church in various parts of the Mediterranean and eventually throughout the whole world. Decided that in this story that Matthew has told, we hear the voice of Christ himself. This text has a power that makes it valid for every community and every time and every place. Because there’s always a danger that we can feel cut off from the source of life. That we can no longer hear the voice of Jesus. That it’s somehow back there. What Matthew says, and Luke will say the same thing in different accents. Is no, there is no such thing as a golden age back there. If only we had been able to sit on the mountain in Galilee. It would have been different. No, it wouldn’t have been. Walk into this story and you shall hear the voice in the same way, not in the same way, but with as much power as they heard it on the mountain in Galilee.
Now, Luke writes for a different set of communities. It’s almost certainly plural. He’s seems, Matthew seems to write for Jewish Christian community. Luke is writing, it seems more for perhaps Gentile Christian communities. But in a way that draws Judaism and Gentile culture together in the most extraordinary way.
I did my doctoral work on Luke’s gospel, and the more I came to know Luke. And doing a doctoral thesis on a text, you become, it’s almost like being married to the author. You come so close to the author, you wonder, who are you, Luke? This anonymous person we call Luke. And all I could decide after years of working with his text was, he was either a Gentile, a non-Jew who knew Judaism intimately. Or he was a Jew who had Hellenistic or Gentile culture in his bones. Take your pick. But it is definitely a combination of cultural worlds and idioms. He writes the best Greek in the New Testament, just by the way Luke. And he may be the only person in the New Testament whose mother tongue was something like Greek.
Now he addresses a different kind of drama. And the drama is suggested in the very beginning of his Gospel, what they call the prologue. So, if we just have a quick look at that, Luke starts off by saying, by the way, he writes a quarter of the New Testament because he’s also the author of Acts. So, you got to think of Luke, as we call him, as the author of the Gospel and of Acts. So that’s one quarter of the New Testament, no mean feat. Now he starts the gospel. In fact, the two narratives he begins in this way. Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and ministers of the word. So again, he’s got various texts in front of him. He’s not the first to do this. He certainly has Mark. Does he have Matthew? Probably not.
He says then, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past. So, he’s been working at this. To write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the well foundness of the things that you have been taught. I’m going to repeat that last line because it’s the key. That you may know the well foundness of the things that you have been taught. Now what does this imply?
We don’t know who Theophilus is just by the way. It’s in fact, it’s you, it’s me. If we read or hear this this Gospel now. So don’t bust yourself trying to work out who Theophilus is. It’s the reader. Now, Theophilus is not a beginner. He has been catechised; he’s been taught. He’s been informed of various things. But it seems he’s not sure, at this point, how well founded those things are. And he needs to be reassured of the well foundedness of the things that he has been taught. Now, what has he been taught? Jesus Christ was born as God with us. Jesus Christ was crucified on Calvary. Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and is here among us, here and now, where two or three are gathered in His name.
I mean they’re the bare bones, the Kerygma, that he has been taught. Now, clearly Theophilus, in other words, the communities for whom Luke is writing. He needs reassurance, he’s not too sure, he’s lost momentum, as it were. And what comes with that loss of momentum, that loss of assurance, is a loss of the kind of energy required for mission. Now, remember that the Gospel will be succeeded by the Acts of the Apostles, which will tell a great story of mission. But the kind of mission recounted in Acts requires a particular kind of energy. And if you’re not too sure about what you’ve been taught, you’re not going to have that kind of energy. So again, what’s at stake here is the power or the success even of the Christian mission. Are we, is this community or are these communities losing the kind of energy required for mission. Because they are no longer convinced or no longer as sure as they need to be about the fundamental things that they have been taught?
Now, in this sense, the whole of Luke’s gospel can be understood as a kind of seminary, if I could call it that, for mission. And the punch line, and we will return to this in the next podcast. But the punch line comes at the end of Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus, risen from the dead says, and so it is written that Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead. And that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
Now there’s the punchline. You are witnesses. What does it require? What does it mean to be a witness. So that Theophilus and the communities for whom Luke is writing. They need the kind of reassurance that Luke offers in order to become the kind of witnesses they are called to be. To have the kind of energy that the mission will require, the kind of energy that will be demonstrated spectacularly in the Acts of the Apostles. So, a witness is someone who has seen and or heard something. And can therefore speak of it.
What Luke intends to do in this Gospel is, as we shall see more clearly. Is to help the reader or his communities to see in a new way. But that, in order to see with the open eye, they will have to listen in a new way. They’ll have to listen to the voice of Jesus in order to see Him more deeply and clearly. And how will they listen to the voice of Jesus? Luke says, enter the world that I create in my story. You will hear his voice there. And if you hear his voice there, your eye will be opened, and you will become the witnesses you are called to be.