Apocalyptic, the poor, and the Gospel of Matthew.
In an apocalypse, what happens in heaven corresponds to what happens, or will happen, on earth. It is a kind of overview from an altogether other perspective. It is not a literal representation of reality - past, present, or future - for it tells us more about the reality which it seeks to portray than any literal representation could do. The language which Jewish tradition uses to speak of God's mysteries in the apocalypses enables the reader to understand the meaning of history more profoundly than would be possible from a straightforward narrative. So, if apocalyptic is not only about the end of the world, neither is it mere prediction. Of course, it speaks about the future, but it is a future - as well as a present - viewed in the light of the God who now reigns and will be seen to reign on earth. John on Patmos is commissioned to write `what is now, and what is to take place hereafter' (Rev. 1: 19). It is like a drama happening on two levels in which the `higher' level in some sense interprets what takes place on the `lower' level.(6) That which takes place in heaven, or is reported as having its origin in heaven, offers an insight into the perplexing story of the world. By this means an understanding of the mystery of existence is given a new dimension. Events on the earthly stage are enigmatic. One who looks at them from the `lower' level can nevertheless be offered another perspective on reality through the eye of vision. It is that which is the basis of the apocalypse. It is not that the `higher' level determines the way in which events below work out. Human beings are not puppets at the end of the divine strings. They can be confronted with the reality of God and the coming kingdom, and with inexorable truths which demand understanding and action, but they possess freewill and can make choices about the way they will respond. The vision of the apocalyptic writers enables the reader with eyes to see and ears to hear to make sense of events and interactions which, without that added perspective, would seem utterly enigmatic. It is such a perspective which can transform understanding so that what appears to be confusion and folly may be apprehended as the wisdom of God.
This applies also to the Jewish mystical tradition, with which the revelations vouchsafed to apocalyptic seers have several affinities.(7) The mystical tradition behind Jewish mysticism has an obscure history but it is generally thought to have had its origins early in the Second Temple period and to have owed much to the exile. One of its principal subjects is the meditation on the chariot, the merkabah, of Ezekiel. The vision of the glorious God enthroned on the cherubim-chariot was a source of wonder and fascination, as is evident from the early rabbinic literature which much scholarly work in recent years has made available to us together with the discovery of related texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls.(8) In the mystical account, the vision of the divine throne-chariot in heaven was the goal of a heavenly ascent. For example, in the account of the ascent to heaven by Enoch (1 Enoch 14), the seer is granted a sight of God enthroned and enrobed in glory. Here the beatific vision, the supreme goal of life, is possible in the midst of the vicissitudes of earthly existence.
There has been, in recent years, a greater appreciation of the rich potential offered New Testament theology by the apocalyptic and mystical texts of Judaism when viewed not merely as a means of elucidating eschatological themes but also of shedding light on a range of texts less obviously related to such themes. The themes in particular which have been the object of study from the perspective of mysticism are transformation, Christology, and cosmology. Concerning the first of these, the occasional hint in Paul's letters about a transformation of the believer in the midst of the present life, in addition to the eschatological change at the Parousia, provides an opportunity to apply the frequent references to bodily transformation of the apocalyptic seer to passages like 2 Cor. 3.(9) Concerning the second, the development of Christology and the existence of exalted mediatorial figures in the heavenly world has been the subject of fierce debate: was early Christianity merely taking over a theology in which the existence of divine beings wielding divine authority was part of the fabric of Jewish belief? Or were early Christians responsible for a significant mutation of the beliefs of Second Temple Judaism about angels, in which their convictions concerning Jesus as messiah acted as a catalyst?(10) Thirdly, a typical feature of apocalypses is the way they divide heaven into various levels, the highest being occupied by God and the most exalted angels, and the lowest by lesser angelic powers and demons.(11) The ascent of Christ into the heavens, his conquest of the powers, and the relationship of all these to his death `outside the gate' in a text like Hebrews,(12) have all been illuminated by the thought-world of apocalyptic and mysticism.(13) The heavenly world and its relationship to God's saving purposes and to human history are matters of concern to the New Testament writers.
The exploration of the relationship of the New Testament to the world of Jewish mysticism has concentrated on theological themes in the more obviously theological writings of the New Testament. On the whole, the narrative texts have not seemed so susceptible to this kind of treatment. But John Ashton's examination of the relationship between the gospel and the apocalyptic and mystical tradition in his work on the Gospel of John, in which he distils the scholarship of a generation, suggests that the narrative texts of the New Testament may also repay careful study in the light of this material.(14) It is a similar perspective which underlies what follows on the Gospel of Matthew.
As with many other New Testament books there is an apocalyptic and mystical thread running through Matthew's narrative. From the dreams of Joseph and the Magi, which protect the infant son of God, to the dream of Pilate's wife before the crucifixion, which serves to comment on the miscarriage of justice taking place, knowledge through dreams and revelations of a kind familiar to us from the apocalyptic tradition are a significant element in this gospel, notwithstanding that several of such accounts are held in common with the other two synoptics. Of course, the first is the account of the Baptism in which there is a clear allusion to Ezekiel 1: 1 in all three gospels. The heavens are opened, just as they were to the prophet Ezekiel by the river Chebar, thus fulfilling the prophetic longing for God to rend the heavens and reveal the divine purposes (cf. Isa. 64: 1).(15)
And there are other links between the Baptism and the Jewish mystical tradition. The descent of the Spirit on Jesus is compared with that of a dove, and it may be possible to see hints of ma'aseh bereshith the `work of creation', here by linking the baptismal accounts with a rabbinical story concerning the early second-century teacher, Simeon ben Zoma.(16) In this story ben Zoma meditates on the first chapter of Genesis and in particular on the words at 1: 6f., and he sees a small gap separating the upper and lower celestial waters which he connects with the Spirit of God hovering on the face of the waters four verses earlier.(17) This small gap he compares to the small gap which exists when a bird hovers over its nest, and in the version of the story in the Babylonian Talmud the hovering of the Spirit of God is compared to a dove hovering over its young. Such ideas could have arisen from a comparison of Gen. 1: 2 With the onlv other occurrence of the verb rahaph, `to hover', at Deut. 32: 11, where the bird hovers over her young. Whereas in the story of ben Zoma the meditation was a detached piece of cosmological speculation on the nature of the heavenly waters, in the story of the Baptism the creative Spirit hovers over the head of the Son of God.
Similarly the Transfiguration, particularly in its Matthaean version, has several points of contact with ancient Jewish theophanies and the traditions which developed from them. It especially resembles the Christophany of Rev. 1: 13 ff.(18) where the risen Christ appears to the exiled seer on Patmos, and where the links with the throne-theophany tradition based on Ezekiel are widely acknowledged. In the Transfiguration, alone of all the synoptic texts (and surprisingly so, given the nature of the post-resurrection appearances), we come closest to the heavenly appearance of an exalted angelic figure.
One of the oldest of the throne-theophany scenes provides some connections, 1 Enoch 14: 20 f. (cf. Testament Abraham Rec. 12), where several words are found in common with the Greek of the synoptics: sun, face, snow, clothing ([UNKNOWN TEXT OMITTED] in the gospels, cf. [UNKNOWN TEXT OMITTED] in 1 Enoch 14: 11 while [UNKNOWN TEXT OMITTED] at Luke 9: 29 is reminiscent of 1 Enoch 14: 11 and 17. In Matthew, at 17: 6, the disciples fall on their faces, a typical reaction to a theophany (cf. Ezek. 2: 1 and Dan. 10: 9), while also in Matthew, at 17: 9, the event is described as a [UNKNOWN TEXT OMITTED] `vision' (cf. Acts 7: 31 and 9: 12).
According to Mark, the experience on the Mount of Transfiguration hardly enables Peter to understand the significance of what he is seeing, for we are told he does not know what to say on account of his terror (Mark 9: 6, cf. 16: 8), a theme repeated in Luke at 9: 33 but absent in Matthew where, arguably, the request to build three [UNKNOWN TEXT OMITTED] is understood to indicate a true perception of the significance of what is happening. Similarly in Matthew the suggestion of clearer perception on the part of the disciples is confirmed by their ensuing question concerning Elijah. Jesus' enigmatic reply is understood by the disciples as a reference to John the Baptist (17: 13). Here their interpretative wisdom is marked. It is of great moment to attach the mystery of the prophecy of Elijah to John the Baptist, a flash of insight parallel to Matthew's version of Peter's confession which is said to be the result of divine revelation (16: 17 ff.).
Wisdom and insight about the nature of things, particularly concerning the mysteries of the future, are typical of the apocalyptic and mystical tradition, and it is often after a throne-theophany that they are granted to the mystic. In the Apocalypse of Abraham, for example, the patriarch is shown the meaning of the story of humanity from creation to eschaton. In the Hebrew Book of Enoch (3 Enoch) the ascent to heaven includes angelogical mysteries as well as the secret of God's failure to act on behalf of the Jews. That kind of insight about a problem is paralleled in the enigmatic passages which follow the account of the ascent of the Four to the heavenly Paradise in the Babylonian Talmud version.(19) In that version in particular there is little doubt that what is described is a heavenly journey with all its perils and privileges.(20) At its conclusion ben Zoma, one of the four, is asked difficult halakhic questions which he is able to answer in consequence of his heightened awareness and insight. It is a feature of the later mystical tradition that such insight is vouchsafed to the mystical adept who safely makes the heavenly journey and is thereby able to consult with sar Torah," the `Prince of Torah' (one of the angels), about the mysteries of Torah interpretation.
In Matthew's account of the Transfiguration, the points of contact with Jewish mysticism make such a background likely. We are not then surprised to find that at the climax of the gospel (28: 18) the risen Christ claims all authority not only over the earth but in heaven too. Other passages relate directly to our theme of the poor and outcast, and in these it is possible to detect a polemic against a preoccupation with heaven. For Matthew, the glorious Son of man on his heavenly throne has descended to earth and is to be located among `the least'. Blessedness is not, we are to understand, attained by searching the heavens but, in the phrase Matthew uses after the adoration of the Magi, `by another way'(2: 12).
The first of these passages to be considered is the conclusion of the eschatological discourse (25: 31-46) where we find a judgement scene, commonly called the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, with a parallel not in the other synoptics but in a Jewish text, `The Similitudes of Enoch' (1 Enoch 37-71), where the heavenly Son of man sits on God's throne of glory, exercising judgement and vindicating the elect. A new element in the Matthaean scene, however, is the astonishment with which the righteous learn that they have, in fact, ministered to this glorious Son of man in the persons of the naked, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the stranger, and those in prison. Their destiny, they discover, was determined at the moment of responding to the needs of those who appeared to be nonentities, those who were apparently the farthest removed in every respect from this heavenly judge who now claims that what the righteous had done to them they had done to him.
There are parallels to all this in the Jewish tradition where respect for the human person created in God's image, irrespective of nation or religious affiliation, is to be found. Most akin to Matthew's sheep and goats is 2 Enoch 42: 48 ff., where clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, looking after widows and orphans, and coming to the aid of those who have suffered injustice, are criteria for blessedness. But Matthew's links with the thronetheophany tradition are revealed in other, more surprising ways.
In chapter 18 the disciples ask Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He answers by taking a child and declaring to the disciples that the one who `humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven'. The child must be their measure of true greatness. In the next verse (18: 6) Jesus is portrayed as speaking of the children as `these little ones', another key term in Matthew's gospel. Response to the child or the little one is the same as response to Jesus. Just as fulfilling the needs of the hungry and thirsty means fulfilling the needs of the heavenly Son of man, so receiving a child means receiving Jesus himself (v 6). A woe is pronounced on those who cause one of them to stumble, for `these little ones' are they `who believe in me' (ibid.).(22) There is something special about the child. Once again, echoing the language of the apocalyptic tradition, we are told their angels have the privilege of beholding God's face, the highest of all privileges. The climax of the heavenly ascent is the vision of God enthroned in glory, something normally denied not only to mortals but also to angels. The angels of Matthew's little ones stand in close proximity to the throne of glory and share in that destiny which is vouchsafed to the elect in the new Jerusalem, described in Revelation (22: 4), of seeing God face to face: `His servants shall worship him, and they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads.' The little ones in Matt. 18: 10 have a particular privilege, just as in Matt. 11: 25 it is `the babes' to whom the significance of Jesus' ministry is revealed while it is hidden from the wise.
Matthew 18: 10 presupposes some kind of link between the little ones and their angels. Such a connection is found in the Jewish Haggadah where the ancestors are regarded as the embodiment of the mysteries of God's throne and person. So one source says: `The patriarchs are the merkabah, the throne-chariot'.(23) Accordingly we find in another passage angels competing with one another to catch a glimpse of Abraham and Jacob whose features are engraved on the throne of glory.(24) Perhaps it is something similar which lies behind Paul's assertion in 2 Cor. 3: 18 that life under the new covenant means that `we all, with unveiled face, are beholding the glory of the Lord and being changed from glory to glory'.
Earlier in Matthew, in the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares that the pure in heart will see God. Once again we have terminology familiar from the mystical tradition in which the seer is vouchsafed a glimpse of the divine kabod, glory, after the heavenly ascent. Just as in the Jewish mystical tradition such a privilege comes only after a thorough grounding in Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud, so here too in Matthew an ethical dimension is similarly stressed.
Less obviously connected with the apocalyptic and mystical tradition is Jesus' exposition of the significance of John the Baptist's person and activity in Matthew 11. All the Synoptic Gospels link John with the messenger who is to precede the great and terrible day of the Lord: `Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me' (Mal. 3: 1). John's position is indeed exalted in so far as the marginal figure baptising at the Jordan is identified with Elijah returned from heaven to announce the imminence of that great and terrible day. The significance of the allusion to the verses in Malachi, lost in our English translations, is the occurrence of the word [alpha][gamma][gamma][epsilon][lambda]o[sigma], usually translated `messenger'. Even allowing for some flexibility of usage, due account needs to be taken of the fact that elsewhere in Matthew [alpha][gamma][gamma][epsilon][lambda]o[sigma] refers to a heavenly emissary from God. Moreover, the verse from Malachi applied to John is an allusion to Exod. 23: 30 which speaks of God's angel going before the people as they journey out of Egypt.
Exodus 23: 20 is a passage of some importance within Jewish mystical literature. It is used to support the belief in an exalted angel named Metatron whose greatness derives from the indwelling of the divine name in him (see b. San 38b). Although references to that angel who bears the divine name are found only in texts later than the New Testament, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that such beliefs were current at the end of the first century when early Christians were formulating their beliefs about Christ. One example of this comes in an apocalypse which is dated towards the end of the first century AD. In it there appears an angel, the description of whom bears remarkable similarities to the vision of Christ in Revelation as well as with other Jewish texts (Apoc. Abr. 10 f.: `I am called Jaoel by him who moves that which exists with me on the seventh expanse of the firmament, a power in virtue of the ineffable name that is dwelling in me').(25)
There is more to be said on this subject in connection with the elucidation of New Testament Christology. Though this material may not at first sight seem to be relevant for the interpretation of the reference to John the Baptist in Matthew 11, the identification of John with an angel belongs to an ancient tradition (and, in the Orthodox East, a continuing one). It is discussed by Origen who, in his commentary on the Gospel of John (ii-31 on 1: 6), interprets `there was a man sent from God whose name was John' with a quotation from the important Jewish pseudepigraphon The Prayer of Joseph.(26) He offers this as an example of the belief that a human being could be an incarnation of an angel:
I Jacob who am speaking to you am also Israel an angel of God and a ruling spirit. Abraham and Isaac were created before any work. But I Jacob ... whose name is Israel ... am he whom God called Israel, which means a man seeing God, because I am the first-born of every living thing to which God gives life ... I descended to earth and tabernacled among humunity, and I was called Jacob.
The importance of this Jewish work, which is quoted only partially by Origen, is that in it we learn that the patriarch Jacob is the incarnation of the exalted angel Israel. The terminology used here is reminiscent of that used of the incarnation of the Logos in John I: I4 and (if authentically Jewish) is testimony to a Jewish writing envisaging the possibility of a heavenly being becoming incarnate in human form. After the quotation there is a lengthy digression in which Origen argues for the belief that John the Baptist was an angel and took human form in order to bear witness to the light of the divine Logos.
There may be hints in Matthew (and in Luke) that there was an awareness of an identification of John with an angel. Not only does the passage in Matthew (11: 7-11) contain the application of Malachi to John but the ensuing discussion suggests that John is no ordinary human being. His extraordinary character is stressed here - `he is the greatest among those born of women'. That could be interpreted as an implicit polemic against more exalted claims for John such as are reflected in Origen's discussion. There may have been those who held that he really was an angelic mediator, the angel who would go before the face of the Lord. He would thus be a figure like the angel Israel in the Prayer of Joseph. The angelic origin of John is not denied in Matthew, and indeed may be the reason why he is the greatest of those born of women. But, despite John's greatness, the least in the kingdom is greater than he. Who then is 'the least'? This is a matter of debate. It could refer to Jesus himself. Jesus would then be the one who followed John, not in the role of a mighty figure but as the one who is meek and lowly of heart. The superior position is thus given in Matthew and Luke to the Son of man who had nowhere to lay his head (Matt. 10: 32, cf. Luke 12: 8). Those who identify with this `little one' are themselves thereby given a significant status. Response to `little ones' is response to the one who is `least' in the kingdom (Matt. 10: 42). Or it may be a reference to the sort of person who identifies with Jesus. If we suppose that the least, o[micro][iota][kappa]o[tau][epsilon][rho]o[sigma], a reference to the humble disciple, we have an elevation of the `least' to a position which exceeds that of John.
So much, in brief survey, for possible connections with the apocalyptic tradition. Debate, however, has raged over the identity of Jesus' brethren in the parable of the sheep and the goats. Is it right to see in the verse, `As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me' (25: 40) a reference to all the poor, naked, hungry, sick, and imprisoned, or is it not the case that, in Matthew's Gospel at least, they are references to followers of Christ, particularly to those Christian missionaries who might need shelter and care? Powerful arguments have been marshalled for the view that Jesus' brethren refers exclusively to poor Christians and not to the poor in general.(27) And such arguments adduce the fact that Jesus' disciples are referred to as `brethren' elsewhere in the gospel. Moreover the related verse at 10: 42, which speaks of service to one of these little ones, has been taken to mean that a reward goes to anyone offering a drink of water to a disciple, the parallel verse at Mark 9: 41 lending support to this view.(28) But even if Matthew's [epsilon][nu][alpha] [tau][omega][nu] [micro][iota][kappa][rho][omega][nu] [tau]o[upsilon][tau][omega][nu] in place of Mark's [[upsilon][micro][alpha][sigma] can be taken as referring to the disciples (and it is not certain they can, since Matthew's change of wording here could represent an intention not to confine the recipients of acts of mercy to Christians only), the debate over the identity of the `brethren' of 25: 40, Or of `the least' at 25: 45, however it is decided, should not blind the reader of Matthew's gospel as a whole to the fact that, throughout Matthew's narrative, the Son of man identifies himself with a much wider group than the disciples who are in need of succour, who are `like sheep without a shepherd' (9: 36; cf. 4: 23).(29)
There is one issue which I believe has not received enough attention in the debate about the identity of Jesus' brethren. While an identification of the disciples with the [micro][iota][kappa][tau]o[iota], the little ones, may indeed be found earlier in the gospel, the picture of the disciples becomes progressively less positive.(30) After the revelation granted to Peter at 16: 17 concerning the true nature of Jesus, Peter becomes an embodiment of Satan and a [sigma][kappa][alpha][nu][delta][alpha][lambda]o[nu] to Jesus, while his remonstration with Jesus at 26: 33, `Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away', is followed by his emphatic denial of Jesus later in the same chapter. After the descent from the Mount of Transfiguration, the disciples who failed to heal the epileptic boy are reproached by Jesus for being a faithless generation (17: 17; cf. 16: 4 and 21: 20). And despite the words of Jesus about the blessedness of children, the disciples rebuke the children who come to Jesus (19: 13), they are indignant with the woman who anoints the head of Jesus (26:8) and they are astounded by the implications of Jesus' teaching on divorce and wealth (19: 10 and 19: 25). They are blind to the humble way of the Messiah and desire places of honour in the kingdom (which is not disguised by their mother acting as their agent, 20: 20 ff.). They remain attached to the old order (24: 1) and, like the Pharisees, want to know what signs will usher in the new (24: 3; cf. 16: 4). Judas betrays Jesus; his closest disciples fail to watch with him (26: 40-45); while their readiness to use the power of the old order to resist Jesus, arrest is rebuked by jesus in a statement of spiritual principle peculiar to Matthew's account: `All who take the sword will perish by the sword.' Even after the resurrection, when the eleven disciples go to Galilee to meet jesus on the mountain, `some of them doubted' (28: 16).
So a case can be made for seeing the second half of the gospel as being one in which the ideal of discipleship ceases to be embodied in the group of disciples, with the result that other paradigms are needed. This is seen most clearly in chapter 18, where the child is set over against the twelve as the type of true greatness. Although Peter has had his moments of insight it is the crowd which hails Jesus as he enters Jerusalem (21: 9), the blind and the lame who come to him in the temple (21: 14), and the children who cry out, `Hosanna to the son of David!' (21: 15). These are the v[eta][pi][iota][omicron][iota], babes, of whom the Psalmist speaks and Matthew quotes: `Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise' (21: 16 quoting Ps 8). The v[eta][pi][iota][omicron][iota] referred to at 11: 25, where Jesus gives thanks to his heavenly father for hiding these things from the wise and intelligent and revealing them to babes, includes the disciples, but as the gospel proceeds the adult disciples are those who are seen to slip over onto the side of Satan, betraying, denying, and abandoning the Son of man. This shift is in line with much else in Matthew's Gospel which, like the Book of Revelation, is directed to challenging complacency. Certainty concerning salvation is not offered by these works, not even to those who can claim to be disciples.
In the light of this shift I want to question the widespread assumption that the child in Matthew's Gospel is merely a cipher for the Church member. Children are mentioned elsewhere in the Synoptic Gospels and are important in the Bible generally. They continue the race and are a sign of hope and, in the case of Immanuel at Isa. 7: 14, of judgement. But, whatever their significance as symbols, their rights are limited, their obligation being to continue in the tradition of the fathers. The ideal child is one who is obedient. A rebellious son like Absalom is no role model. The instructions to sons in Proverbs epitomize the subordinate position of the child. His task (and it is instruction directed to males rather than to females) is to be an empty vessel ready to receive the wisdom of his father (13: 1; cf. 5: 1; 6: 20; 4: 10; 4: 1-4; 4: 20; 1: 8). A fool on the other hand spurns his father's correction (15: 5). Folly is deep-rooted in children and only a good beating will drive it out of them (22: 13). It is the task of the parent to set the child on the path he should go. Being a child is to be an inferior who needs to have the emptiness of immaturity filled with adult wisdom.
All this contrasts with the themes of Matthew's Gospel. There, the privilege of the apparently insignificant and of children is given added importance by the mystical tradition which forms part of the background of Matthew's account. It is a surprising perspective. The child moves to centre stage. To place a child in the midst of the disciples is to challenge the assumption that the child has nothing of worth and can only be heeded when it has received another's wisdom. The ordering of things which characterizes the adult world is not the embodiment of wisdom, and may in fact be a perversion of it. Here is a perspective which challenges the traditions of older generations. To be as a child is a mark of greatness, in terms of the values of the kingdom, for it is the children and those able to identify with them who have solidarity with the humble - and therefore with Jesus.
The characteristic of the child, the little one, the least, is that such are peculiarly able to have the kind of insight appropriate to those whose angels always behold the divine face. The position of children in the ancient world was much inferior to the more child-centred world of today. They were often, as a matter of course, treated brutally by our standards. On the other hand children were widely believed to be in close contact with the divine world and in the light of this it is possible to understand why Matthew suggests that children possess an insight which disciples must emulate, not despise. Theirs is an intuition into the nature of God which seems to belong especially to those who in some sense at a disadvantage in relation to the wise and prudent of this world (11: 25). It is too simple to say that those who have such insight are the `poor'. It might be more appropriate to call them the `marginal'. They are, in any case, the `humble', both in terms of status and natural endowment. In Matthew's Gospel there is a privilege for this group in regard to the understanding of divine mysteries; a privilege which is to be seen as a grace rather than as a right. And the disciples share in it, but they have imbibed the dominant ideology and their vision is limited in consequence.
At the heart of Matthew's Christology is the deliberate identification of Immanuel - `God with us' - with the powerless and weak, an identification which is maintained consistently throughout the gospel: `He took our infirmities and bore our diseases' (Isa. 53: 4 quoted at 8: 7), `He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick' (Isa. 42: 3 quoted at 12: 20), and `I desire mercy and not sacrifice' (Hos. 6: 6) which Matthew quotes twice (9: 13 and 12: 7), the second time being a significant addition to the story of the disciples plucking ears of corn (cf. Mark 2: 23-28; Luke 6: 1-5). The privilege of being called into the kingdom is no longer confined to the seer or mystic, but is granted to the sheep who follow the Shepherd in identifying with the poor and humble and who respond to those making claims on them from positions of weakness. But, quite as much as the goats, the sheep are misled by appearances. They do not know that in ministering to the naked, poor, hungry, sick, stranger, and imprisoned they have ministered to the heavenly Son of man on his throne of glory.
So in Matthew's Gospel we have a narrative in which another dimension to ordinary life is revealed, a strategy typical of the apocalyptic and mystical tradition. it gives us another perspective, a divine dimension of which apocalyptic enables us to catch a glimpse. It is impossible to understand human existence or the hidden nature of individuals unless one is also aware of another, hidden story. The apocalyptic dimension to ordinary life is especially pronounced in Matthew. The little ones are really the ones whose angels are able to gaze on the divine kabod. The hungry and the imprisoned are really the ones who are, in some sense, representations of the divine Son of man. We may speak perhaps of a story on two levels which cannot be understood without regard to both levels of the narrative. Not much of the second level is available to us, but occasionally the curtain is raised on it and we catch a glimpse. One might even say that the gospel is a kind of allegory and that it is not so much the plain meaning of the text but that other story which alone can make sense of the plain meaning. There has to be an apocalyptic dimension to it in order to open our minds to its true meaning and thereby to read it aright.
I hope I have said enough to suggest that there are sufficient indications in the Gospel of Matthew to warrant a closer consideration of its indebtedness to the jewish apocalyptic and mystical tradition, and that what has been said with regard to Matthew can be said, mutatis mutandis, for other parts of the New Testament. These reflections on the first gospel are representative of the possibilities which study of this aspect of the Jewish tradition can yield for the interpretation of the New Testament as a whole. There is hardly a book in it which cannot be illuminated by the esoteric world of mysticism and apocalyptic - a challenging prospect for the student of Christian origins. (1) The centrality of apocalyptic for Pauline theology has often been stressed. See e.g. J. C. Beker, Paul The Apostle (Edinburgh, 1980). (2) The influence of the approach to apocalyptic and eschatology pioneered by J. Weiss (e.g. his Die Idee des Reiches Gottes in der Theologie (Giessen, 1901)) and others still pervades treatment of the subject. (3) T. F. Glasson has for a long time been a persistent critic of this consensus, see `Schweitzer's Influence - Blessing or Bane?' JTS, NS 28 (1977), pp. 289 ff. (4) See Rowland, The Open Heaven (London, 1982), p. 9 ff. (5) Apocalyptic and mysticism are usually distinguished as distinct religious phenomena. But, given that apocalyptic is in large part concerned with the secrets of heaven, there is a considerable degree of overlap between the two. In his treatment of the kabbalah Gershom Scholem has argued for that continuity between the apocalyptic tradition of the Second Temple period and the hekaloth tradition (see Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (London, 1955), Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism and Talmudic Tradition (New York, 1965), also I. Gruenwald, Apocalyptic and Merkavah Mysticism (Leiden, 1978)). Apocalyptic and mysticism thus serve as heuristic devices to denote different phases of the tradition of belief and practice associated with speculation about the heavenly world and its mysteries (see further on the problems of definition, John Barton, Oracles of God (London, 1986)). The continuity between apocalyptic and early rabbinic mysticism has been challenged by D. Halperin, The Faces of the Chariot (Tubingen, 1988) (on which see C. Morray-Jones' forthcoming monograph and his review of Halperin's book in JTS, NS, 41 (1990)). (6) See the pertinent comments in J. L. Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (New York, 1968). (7) See further Rowland, op. cit. pp. 269 ff. (8) See C. Newsom, The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (Atlanta, 1985) and on the expositions of the chapter in the apocalyptic tradition see Rowland in JSJ 10 (1979), pp. 138 ff. (9) See the forthcoming study by James Barlow of Oriel College, Oxford. (10) See A. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven (Leiden, 1978) and L. W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord (London, 1990). (11) See A. T. Lincoln, Paradise Now and Not Yet (Cambridge, 1980). (12) E.g. O. Hofius, Der Vorhang vor dem Thron Gottes (Tubingen, 1972). (13) In this regard, the Ascension of Isaiah, an apocalypse which in its present form comes from the late first or early second century AD, reflects the blend of apocalyptic cosmology and soteriology which may have contributed to passages like 1 Cor. 2: 9; Col. 2: 14 f. and 1 Peter 3: 22. (14) Understanding the Fourth Gospel (Oxford, 1991), pp. 337 ff. and 381 ff. (15) See further Rowland, The Open Heaven pp. 358 ff. (19) bHag14b. (20) See Rowland, The Open Heaven pp. 309 ff, (21) G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (London, 1955), pp. 77. (22) This phrase [epsilon][nu][alpha] [tau][omega][nu] [micro][iota][kappa][rho][omega][nu] [tau]o[upsilon][tau][omega][nu] [tau][omega][nu] [pi][iota][delta][tau][xi][upsilon]o[nu][tau][omega][nu] [xi][[iota][sigma] [xi][micro][xi] is found only here in Matthew and most likely refers to the privileged insight given to the least as compared with the wise and sophisticated (Matt. 11: 25 f.). Certain groups are privileged to be in receipt of the divine mysteries vouchsafed in Jesus' teaching (13: 35 cf. 1 Peter 1: 11 f.). (23) E.g. Bereshith R.47.6; 69.3; 82.6. (24) Targum Neofiti on Genesis 22. (25) See Rowland, JSNT 24 (1985), pp. 99 ff. (26) The authenticity and theological provenance is discussed by J. Z. Smith in Religions in Antiquity, Supplements to Numen, J. Neusner (ed.) (Leiden, 1968). (27) For an example of this see G. Stanton, Gospel of a New, People (Edinburgh, 1992), pp. 207 ff. and S. Gray, The Least of My Brethren (Atlanta, 1989). (28) Most translations of Mat. 10: 42 identify the little ones as the disciples. But the Greek is more ambiguous, a fact well brought out in the Authorized Version's rendering `And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple ...'. The phrase [xi][iota][sigma] o[nu]o[micro][alpha] [micro][alpha][[theta][eta][tau]o][upsilon] may well be a Semitism but we are not in a position to decide whether the act is carried out because the recipient is a disciple, because the donor is a disciple, or because the donor acts on the basis of the injunction or example of a disciple. (29) For an approach to Matt. 25: 3I ff. which takes seriously the wider literary context and questions the priority of the original meaning of the text see F. Watson in The Open Text. New Directions for Biblical Studies? (London, 1993), pp. 57 ff. (30) Cf. the classic treatment of discipleship in Matthew by U. Luz in G. Stanton (ed.), The Interpretation of Matthew (London, 1983).  On the possibility that a wider circle is suggested see U. Luz, Das Evangelium nach Matthdus (Zurich, 1990), P. 205 f.  Stanton's argument in The Gospel of a New People, loc. cit., that Matthew's eschatology is typical of the promise of vindication for a beleagured sect, and so is lacking in concern for non-members, seems to me to ignore the ambiguities which pervade the gospel's portrayal of `insiders'. When the disciples are addressed, it is often with words of warning about their imminent failure (24: 5, 6; 25: 42; 25: 15) - something which actually takes place in 26: 24 and 31.  See e.g. T. Wiedemann Adults and Children in the Ancient World (London, 1989), S. Legasse Jesus et l'Enfant (Paris 1969), but note the cautionary remarks of Peter Garnsey in D. Ketzer and R. Saller (eds.) Child Rearing in Italy (New Haven, 1989).  Similarly K. Wengst, Humility. Solidarity of the Humiliated (London, 1986).  This is an abbreviated version of the 1992 Manson Memorial Lecture, given in the University of Manchester.
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|Publication:||The Journal of Theological Studies|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1994|
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