Jesus and the Beelzebul Controversy: A Devilish Synoptic Puzzle

Lindisfarne Gospels - caption: 'St. Matthew'

Lately, I can’t stop thinking about the Synoptic Problem. This is my third article on the subject, so if you’re not sure what the Synoptic Problem is, I suggest that you first check out an earlier post I wrote on it.

In my second article on the subject, I looked at the Parable of the Talents/Minas, which is found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. Under the standard two-source theory, the source of such material is a hypothetical document called Q. According to noted Q skeptic Mark Goodacre, Luke copied that parable and other double tradition passages from Matthew. My own analysis suggests a third solution supported by a small but increasing number of scholars: that Matthew copied Luke — to be precise, an earlier version of Luke we can call proto-Luke. We’ll call this view “Matthean Posteriority” for convenience.¹  Continue reading “Jesus and the Beelzebul Controversy: A Devilish Synoptic Puzzle”

Crime and Punishment in Sodom and Gomorrah

Pieter Schoubroeck, De verwoesting van Sodom en Gomorra (The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), 16th century

In many religious circles, Sodom and Gomorrah have become watchwords for the moral panic many people feel in connection with the perceived corruption and depravity of society. The metaphor is invoked particularly by those who oppose the increasing acceptance of homosexuality, and it is not hard to see why. The story of Sodom in Genesis 19 is a vivid tale of fire-and-brimstone destruction, and same-sex attraction is frequently thought to be the main crime for which its denizens are punished. Understandably, then, this biblical passage has become a target for Christians on both side of the debate who need the Bible to express either condemnation or silence on the matter. If the biblical story of Sodom is an infallible morality tale, then interpreting it correctly is of utmost importance. Continue reading “Crime and Punishment in Sodom and Gomorrah”

Did Luke Know and Use Matthew? The Parable of the Talents/Pounds as a Test Case

Willem de Poorter, The Parable of the Talents or Minas, 17th century

I recently wrote an article on the Synoptic Problem and how editorial fatigue — consistency errors made by one writer who is copying another — is a key type of evidence showing that both Matthew and Luke were based on Mark. If you don’t know what the Synoptic Problem is, you should go read that article before this one.

In addition to the material Matthew and Luke copied from Mark, we often find material shared in common between Matthew and Luke that is absent from Mark. This content is known as the Double Tradition, and it presents us with a puzzle. Regardless of its pre-Gospel origin (e.g. church teaching, oral tradition about Jesus, or other texts), it shows a direct literary relationship between Matthew and Luke, as indicated by identical wording and other close parallels.

Did Luke get this material from Matthew? Did Matthew get it from Luke? Both possibilities seem unlikely for a number of reasons; for one, Matthew and Luke differ drastically on key stories not found in Mark, like Jesus’ nativity and the resurrection appearances. If, for example, the author of Luke knew Matthew, why did he completely reject great story material like the adoration of the Magi and the flight to Egypt? Why provide a genealogy completely different from Matthew’s? And so on. Continue reading “Did Luke Know and Use Matthew? The Parable of the Talents/Pounds as a Test Case”

The Tower of Babel: Did It Exist, and What Does the Story Mean?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel, circa 1563-1565

The Tower of Babel is another biblical story that will be familiar to anyone with a typical Western religious upbringing. Like many of the narrative snippets found in the first eleven chapters of Genesis (the Primeval History), its brevity and ambiguous wording have led interpreters to fill in the gaps in all sorts of ways in order to squeeze meaning out of it.

As we read the text, there are a number of interesting questions we can ask. Was the Tower of Babel based on a real building? What message is the text trying to convey, both on its own and in context?

I’m also interested in the story’s application to the modern creationist movement. How much attention does the Tower of Babel get in the science-religion debate compared to the Genesis stories of creation and Noah’s flood? Continue reading “The Tower of Babel: Did It Exist, and What Does the Story Mean?”

How Editorial Fatigue Shows That Matthew and Luke Copied Mark

Matthias Stom, The Evangelists St. Mark and St. Luke, 1635

Church taught me to read the Gospels separately while assuming they all told the same story. Higher criticism, however, has taught me to read the Gospels together while letting them speak for themselves. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman calls this approach “horizontal reading” in Jesus Interrupted, one of the books that first got me interested in biblical studies. Naturally, it is something that successful Bible scholars have been doing for a long time.

One subject I haven’t written much about yet is the Synoptic Problem. By reading the canonical Gospels horizontally and comparing related passages, it is quite easy to see why scholars almost unanimously believe Mark was written first (i.e. Marcan Priority). I’d like to highlight the phenomenon of fatigue in particular and what it shows us about these texts. Continue reading “How Editorial Fatigue Shows That Matthew and Luke Copied Mark”

Princes of Darkness: The Devil’s Many Faces in Scripture and Tradition

Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women (1500)

Belief in Satan — the embodiment of sin and evil who exists in reality as a personal being — has been a mainstay of Christian doctrine and popular belief since the earliest days of the faith. As with most Christian theology, however, there is great diversity in the church’s teachings on the devil, both past and present. Most Christians assume that the qualities commonly attributed to Satan are derived from clear and straightforward readings of the Bible, but are they really? Continue reading “Princes of Darkness: The Devil’s Many Faces in Scripture and Tradition”

Matthew’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined

“The Three Wise Men”, a mosaic from the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, c. 526.

Another Christmas has come and gone, and it is a time of year when one Bible story stands out above all else—the nativity of Jesus. Despite the deep reverence Christians have for this story, many (perhaps most) are aware at some level that the ubiquitous scene with the shepherds, the three magi, the star and the stable full of animals is an idealized fairytale version. As a mythologized tradition, it exists in numerous cultural variations—those from Naples may include taverns and merchants, for example, while Catalan nativity scenes always include a character who is defecating (!), called the “Caganer”. The Bible itself tells two separate tales of Jesus’ birth (one in Matthew and one in Luke), and neither of them presents an account that resembles the modern nativity portrayal. Nor, for that matter, can the two accounts be merged into a single, consistent narrative without altering or omitting numerous critical details. Then again, few people care really look that closely at the biblical texts and their background. The crèche, though not faithful to any biblical story or historical reality, is a powerful vignette full of symbolic elements that combine to create a sense of mystery and awe. In many ways, it has superseded the Gospels as the canonical representation of Jesus’ birth in the minds of believers. Continue reading “Matthew’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined”

Exodus and the Plagues of Egypt

John Martin, The Seventh Plague of Egypt, 1823

With Ridley Scott’s new motion picture Exodus: Gods and Kings nearing its release date of December 12, I thought the Exodus would make a good topic for analysis. The tale of Moses, the ten (or so) plagues, and the Israelites’ flight from Egypt is in many ways the climax of the Pentateuch’s narrative arc — a Bible story that defines the nation of Israel and the most important figure in Judaism, Moses.

Investigation of the book of Exodus could fill (and has filled) innumerable articles and books, but even a fairly cursory look at the story of the plagues reveals tantalizing details and odd inconsistencies that imply a rich and complex history of authorship and revision. Continue reading “Exodus and the Plagues of Egypt”

Luke’s Genealogy Compared with Matthew and the Old Testament

Luke's Genealogy of Christ, Book of Kells

In an earlier article, I examined the genealogy that the Gospel of Matthew gives for Jesus and drew some conclusions about its sources and purpose. To summarize, Matthew’s genealogy is built on an artificial numerical scheme that divides Israel’s past from Abraham to Jesus into three periods spanning fourteen generations each. For the most part, it is based on the genealogies found in 1 Chronicles, and many contradictions with the Hebrew Old Testament can be explained by Matthew’s use of the Greek Septuagint (LXX) — particularly, a manuscript with variant readings that resemble Codex Alexandrinus. This genealogy makes Jesus out to be an individual of both royal and priestly descent, and it associates Jesus with some interesting women along the way.

The genealogy in the Gospel of Luke goes all the way back to Adam and is almost twice as long as Matthew’s, listing 77 generations. Luke’s view of Jesus, purpose for writing, and access to manuscripts were quite different, and the result is a pedigree that cannot be reconciled with Matthew’s ancestral list, despite many creative attempts at harmonization by theologians both ancient and modern. What can we deduce from a close look at Luke’s genealogy? Continue reading “Luke’s Genealogy Compared with Matthew and the Old Testament”