A Faithful Scribe in the Kingdom

As we approach the Gospel of Matthew, let us imagine that we are there in the room with the book’s author. His back is turned to us, so we cannot yet see his face. He is seated on a low writing bench, the fresh papyrus roll balanced on his thighs with the easy grace of an experienced Jewish scribe. He has not noticed us yet, and so for a moment we watch the back of his plain linen tunic, the lines of his shoulders taut with concentration.

Although he is alone in this upper room, the mess of the city’s life spills in through the window in front of him, its wooden shutters opened wide to let in the light. He can hear a customer at the street-side tavern below cursing the owner by all the gods he can think of. It is probably time to pay for all those cups of wine. The scribe can hear the grind and knock of a wagon rolling over the cobbled pavement, on its way to the open market nearby. Since it is mid-day, the smell of bread no longer wafts up from the bakery next door, but the pervasive sour smell of sweat and urine hangs above the sidewalk and the road-side sewer. Somewhere close a woman is being berated by her husband. His shouts are not quite distinguishable, but the woman’s sobs give a clear enough idea what he is saying. This is the world for which the scribe is writing. He follows in a centuries-long line of Jewish thinkers and writers who have struggled against the evil and chaos of their world. Their fight is shaped by their conviction that the one God, the Creator of the cosmos, has spoken to Israel and given her a gracious gift in the covenant and its law. This scribe, like those before him, is driven by the determination to find the wise path through the tangled realities of life. The words of the first psalm return to his lips day after day:

Blessed is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
or stand in the path of sinners,
or sit in the mockers’ seat.
Instead, his delight is in the LORD’s torah,
and he meditates on that torah day and night.
He will be like a well watered tree
that stands on the bank of a stream . . .

To find the path of wisdom, the path of life, this scribe plunges into the words of Torah, he immerses himself in the prophets’ speeches, he soaks in the songs and poems of the sages. But this is not all just a quest for his own life. He reads and writes and works at the centre of a Jewish “gathering,” a synagogue, who rely on his teaching to guide their daily steps. A faithful scribe, he listens to their problems – the son who has abandoned the way of Israel, the master who has broken three more ribs with his beatings, the frustration at leaving a half formed pot to harden and be ruined because Sabbath is beginning. He listens and prays and studies and offers them wisdom shaped by God’s own words. He tries, at least, to guide them to life. This is the responsibility that tenses his shoulders as his pen scratches over the fresh papyrus.

This scribe, though, is not writing the same wisdom as his fathers did. They wrote as they waited for God to come and free Israel. This scribe, though, has seen the day of liberation come. Although the men and women of his synagogue still strain and groan under the same Roman taxes and live amid the same corrupt idolatry, they know that God has finally acted. Messiah, the one who would take up David’s sceptre, has finally come. Now everything must be thought through again. That King from Nazareth did not come with the triumph they expected. He brought with him, though, a new wisdom and a new torah that have opened the shutters on Israel’s scriptures and allow a new light to pour out from those ancient words. As he sits in the light from that window above the street, he writes the words handed down to him from his own teacher, the Messiah’s words: “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” And so this man, a simple faithful scribe, has taken up his pen to write a new book which will guide his people in the footsteps of Jesus the Messiah. This is the book we know as the Gospel of Matthew.

The Scribe and His Sources

As we imagined the scribe at work on his book we imagined that his back was turned away from us. If we were to walk around to his side and catch a glimpse of his face we would find that he is not who we expected. This is not the Matthew (or Levi?) who worked on contract for the Romans to gather taxes. In fact, this is not one of the Twelve at all. Perhaps we should have realized this when we peered over the scribe’s shoulder at the text he is writing. This man is writing comfortably in Greek. His language may not be the polished dialect of an educated Hellenist, but neither is it the awkward Greek of a man who still thinks in Aramaic. He is certainly not translating an earlier Aramaic version. No, this scribe is not a Judean but rather a member of Jewish diaspora, the far flung Jewish communities that grew up speaking Greek with their Gentile neighbours around the Mediterranean.

As we watch this scribe at work something catches our eye. Another scroll lies neatly on the floor by his feet, unrolled just a bit so that its text can be seen. From time to time the scribe lifts his pen, leans over, and turns the other scroll’s handles to find a passage. Soon he has found what he wants and sets to work again at his own composition. The scribe, lost in his work, still does not notice us as we step closer. We peer over his shoulder to read his freshly inscribed words and our eyes fall on a familiar line:

Then, behold, a leper came toward him and bowed down to him and said “Lord, If you want to you are able to heal me.” Stretching out his hand, he touched him and said “I want to. Be healed.”

Here is the evangelist writing down the miracle in which Jesus healed the leper of his disease (Matt 8:2-3). Glancing down at scroll open on the floor, though, our eyes fall on some words that sound strikingly similar:

Now a leper came toward him asking him and saying to him “If you want to you are able to heal.” He was deeply moved and, stretching out his hand, he touched him and said to him “I want to. Be healed.”

It seems that the scribe is not writing his account of Jesus from memory alone. He is basing his book on another version. We might even recognize the words on the second scroll as coming from Mark’s version of the same story (Mark 1:40-41). That is the scroll lying at the scribe’s feet – Mark’s first written account of Jesus.

Why imagine another scroll lying at the Scribe’s feet? Why imagine that this source for Matthew’s Gospel was Mark? For centuries readers of the Gospels have recognized that three of the four canonical Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — sound an awful lot alike. These three have long been called the “synoptic” Gospels because they share a common “synopsis” of Jesus’ life. They share a common outline of his career: beginning in Galilee, moving south through Samaria to Judea, and culminating with the Messiah’s last week in Jerusalem. They also share many of the same stories. In fact, only two of Mark’s episodes lack a parallel version in Matthew’s Gospel: the parable of the “self-growing seed” (Mark 4:26-29) and the healing of the blind man at Bethesda (Mark 8:22-26). In fact, about 89 percent of Mark finds a close equivalent in Matthew. Luke leaves out a few of more stories, but he still includes about 72 percent of the material covered by Mark. What is more, the very wording of these stories and sayings is often identical or only varies slightly as we move from one synoptic Gospel to the next. These realities gave birth to what we call the “synoptic problem”: How is it that these three Gospels share so much of the same content, within the same plot framework, often using the same words?

Although other solutions have been suggested, scholars are nearly unanimous that such close similarities could only have arisen if the Gospel writers actually copied from one another (learn more). Sometimes this idea seems like an attack on the integrity of the Gospel writers, as if we were accusing them of something dishonest. For a first-century author, though, copying from another person’s book was not viewed the way it would be today. It was not like plagiarizing a novel or copying your friend’s homework. Any good historian or biographer would begin his or her research by reading through other accounts. Where the words of those earlier authors were good, the historian would take them over into his own tale. The words did not “belong” to the person who wrote them. They were public property, to be used and adapted however later writers saw fit. Josephus, the Jewish historian writing in Rome toward the end of the first-century, was transparent about the fact that much of his text was taken over from the biblical books, from the Book of Aristeas, and from the earlier history of Nicolaus of Damascus. So when the Gospel writers copied one another’s accounts, they were not “cheating.” They were simply following the same practices expected of all ancient writers. The “synoptic problem” is not really a problem at all, but an intriguing puzzle that has occupied the minds of Christians for centuries.

The “synoptic question” is not answered, though, when we have agreed that some direct copying was involved. We still have to ask “who copied whom?” Augustine, probably influenced by the canonical order of the books, proposed that Matthew was written first and that Mark was an abridgement of Matthew. A few scholars have agreed in recent decades and proposed some version of Matthean priority, the model in which Matthew was written before Mark. The large majority of scholars, though, agree that Mark must have come first. It is difficult, after all, to explain why Mark would want to leave out the stories and sayings that the book does not share with Matthew. If Mark were copying from Matthew, we would have to say (for example) that he had deliberately left out the story of the virgin birth, the whole of the Sermon on the Mount, and the account of Jesus’ resurrection. It is much easier for most scholars to imagine that Mark wrote first and Matthew expanded that first version by adding stories about Jesus’ birth, an account of the resurrection, and a long collection of Jesus’ teachings. Similarly, Mark’s grammar is often poorer than Matthew’s (and especially Luke’s). How likely is it that Mark would deliberately change Matthew time and time again, always rendering his source more awkward? It seems far more plausible, almost unavoidable, to conclude that Mark was the first written account of Jesus’ work, and that the scribe behind Matthew produced an “improved” expansion of that original book.

The fact that the scribe depended on Mark’s earlier text is, in turn, the strongest evidence that he was not the Matthew who followed Jesus through Galilee. On the one hand, this dependence on a written account would seem odd for an eyewitness of Jesus’ mission like Matthew was. What is more, Mark wrote in the latter 60’s of the first century. If this scribe has access to Mark for his work in another city, we must allow at least a decade or so for word to spread of Mark’s Roman document, for copies to be made, and for those copies to be carried by ship and on foot to the other prominent Churches. All of this places the Matthean scribe’s work in the 80’s or 90’s AD. If Matthew was already a successful tax collector before 30, then he would have to be extremely old to be the hand behind this second Gospel. After all, the average life expectancy in the Greco-Roman world was still well below 50 years. So as we watch this teacher at work in (say) 85 AD, we realize he must have been a small child when Jesus stood being questioned by Pontius Pilate.

Why, then, did Matthew’s name come to be attached to this scribe’s book? Most likely this scribe was a disciple of Matthew. He understood himself to be passing on the memory of Jesus as he and the other teachers in his community had learned it over the years spent listening to that apostle’s stories. The scribe’s book was never meant to be passed off as Matthew’s own composition. It did not have a title at all at first, and the men and women who traveled to come and copy the new book simply learned by word of mouth who had written these words. As a good scribe, however, the author would not have told them the book was his own creation. He may have been responsible for the wording, the final shaping, but he would have regarded the substance as coming directly from his teacher. So in a very real sense this book was the “Gospel according to Matthew.” It was the great announcement of God’s rescue, told as Matthew used to tell it. It was the memory of Jesus as Matthew taught it to his students, now set down in writing so that future generations could be trained in this same Messianic wisdom.

Filling Out the Biography

What does it matter who wrote first? Well, if Matthew seems to have revised Mark’s original book, then we can learn a lot about Matthew’s focus by paying attention to the ways in which he edited his source. What did this scribe think was missing from Mark? What did he think needed to be nuanced or toned down as he tried to guide his own people in Antioch?

One thing that Matthew does is to fill out Mark’s story so that it better fits an ancient reader’s expectations of a bios, a biography. Although it was common to focus a biography on the most interesting or significant part of someone’s life, biographies almost always related something about the birth and childhood of the hero. The scribe behind Matthew seems to have recognized that Mark was lacking in this regard, so he drew on the stories he had been taught and composed an “infancy narrative.” Not only did biographies usually describe how their protagonist began life, many of them described miraculous events surrounding that hero’s birth. It was not uncommon to read claims that Zeus or Apollo had actually come and impregnated the protagonist’s mother. The Matthean scribe seems to have recognized here the superficial similarity with the account he had been taught of Mary’s miraculous conception. By including this infancy narrative, he was able both to “fill in” this gap in Mark’s biography of Jesus and to emphasize for the more Hellenized members of his community that Jesus was at least as great as Caesar or Pythagoras.

A good ancient biography also ends with the hero’s death. Here Mark’s book was more satisfying, since he did tell his readers about the crucifixion. At the same time, he left this final episode unfinished, with the resurrection announced but the women too afraid to pass on the news. Once again, the Matthean scribe seems to have tried to fill this gap, rounding out his own bios of Jesus with some of the stories he had been taught about the risen Christ’s appearances to his disciples. As with the infancy narrative, this resurrection account also finds some parallels in Greco-Roman biographies. Although we do not find claims of bodily resurrection, it is not uncommon to read that some great figure ascended to heaven or appeared to his companions in a dream. Matthew’s Gospel is able to emphasize once more the power and triumph of this little-known Jewish convict, who was raised from the dead more gloriously than any emperor.

A Manual for Following Jesus

It seems that the other thing Matthew found lacking in Mark’s account of Jesus was a substantial record of his teaching. Mark was focused on the cosmic significance of God’s action in Christ. He was concerned with laying out the pivotal events in this great drama, in which God’s reign began to invade and restore the fallen creation. Mark was also interested in teaching his Roman audience how to follow Jesus, but here he was preoccupied with one basic choice: were the readers willing to take up Jesus’ cross and suffer for their commitment. If an early Christian community had no teaching apart from Mark’s Gospel, they would be left without any guide in the day to day matter of living as a disciple of Christ. The Torah had provided a comprehensive framework for the Jews’ life and worship together. Those five books had laid out the pattern of life as God had intended it. Did following Jesus mean that we were now left to wander without that wise way to mark out the steps ahead?

After all, the God who gave Moses the Law and led Solomon in his wise reflections was the same God who confronted evil in Christ. Moreover, it seems that the teachers in these early Christian communities generally knew much more than the simple drama set out by Mark. Even that Roman community likely knew many sayings and teachings of Jesus, and we have every reason to think that they looked to those remembered instructions as a guide for living faithful lives. For all the same reasons that Mark wanted to record the drama of Jesus’ life in writing, the scribe behind Matthew’s Gospel decided that this body of Jesus’ teaching also needed to be codified in a written record. As Matthew and the others of the first generation were dying, this scribe foresees that his community and others will need a book that gathers together Jesus’ wisdom just as the Pentateuch gathered together the memory of Moses’ words. Mark’s drama becomes a handbook for life, a blueprint for discipleship.

Turning Up the Volume

One other thing that the Matthean scribe seems concerned about is the possibility that Mark’s readers might miss his point. We saw in the previous chapter how much Mark says indirectly about Jesus, relying on his readers to catch his subtle allusions to Isaiah’s new Exodus or to the Old Testament motif of God as the one who controls the storms. If modern readers sometimes miss this dimension of Mark’s Gospel, we may not be alone. The Matthean scribe, it seems, was also worried that a broad audience might often miss the point. Hence, even where he re-tells incidents from Mark’s account, this scribe often makes subtle changes that make the symbolic significance of the events much clearer.

Take, for example, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop (Matthew 17:1-8). In Mark’s earlier account we are told that Jesus’ “garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3). Mark seems here to understand Jesus’ shining clothes as an echo of Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai. This is subtly reinforced in the Marcan version by other motifs that connect with the Sinai events: the mention of “six days,” the cloud which covers the mountaintop, the divine voice which speaks from the cloud, etc. (see Exod 24:16). This Exodus allusion is ambiguous, though, since there is no reference in Exodus to Moses’ clothes being transformed. Rather, it is his face that becomes radiant. The Matthean scribe, however, explains that “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (Matthew 17:2). By mentioning Jesus’ shining face, the writer makes sure that an audience familiar with the Moses story will not miss the allusion. For every Jewish child knew that the lawgiver’s face had shone with divine glory after his lone encounter with God on Sinai. Notice, too, the way the Matthean scribe adds a glimpse of the disciples’ reaction to the voice from the cloud: “When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground and were terrified” (Matthew 17:6). This recalls the Israelite elders’ terrified reaction to Moses’ radiant face at the foot of the mountain (Exod 34:30). Through this sort of elaboration the Gospel of Matthew turns up the volume, so to speak, on the Old Testament connections through which Mark conveyed so much of his theology.

The Scribe and His People

Life in Antioch

Who was that community for whom this scribe laboured? Where was this street with the upper room where he meditated and where his quill scratched across the papyrus sheet? We do not know for certain, but most likely the scribe worked in Antioch. This was, in many ways, a city of contradictions. In splendour and power Antioch on the Orontes was rivaled only by Alexandria. The city had been founded as a Hellenistic capitol and continued, under the Roman regime, as the capitol of the whole province of Syria. The third largest city of the Roman world (after Rome and Alexandria), Antioch was also one of the most beautiful cities around the Mediterranean. It was nestled among the foothills of Mount Silpius, stretched along the narrow strip of land between the soaring rock faces and the broad river Orontes. On one of the higher points of the city stood the expansive house of Alcimus*, built in the style of a Roman domus, with lavishly painted walls and a lush colonnaded courtyard at its heart. From his doorway Alcimus could gaze across the river and out over the fertile plain beyond. That gently rolling plateau was still clothed in many places by the dense forest that had made the region famous for its timber. Alcimus, though, had made his fortune in metal work. From nearby mines came the gold and silver that were shaped by the craftsmen of Antioch into the finest jewelery and ornaments the Roman world had seen. From his hilltop Alcimus loved to walk down to the wide, main street of the city. Running parallel to the river, this great paved avenue was lined on either side by high marble colonnades, casting their shadow across the ample sidewalks and the shop doors behind. Finally Alcimus would leave the main street and wind his way down to the docks. There boats unloaded their cargoes of grain and cloth. Their bellies would soon be loaded down again by timber, amphorae full of olive oil or wine from the fertile farms around the city, or precious extracts from the rare lilies nurtured around Antioch. Alcimus, though, would be watching to make sure that the dock-workers did not damage the chair, covered entirely in ornate gold, bound for a buyer in Pergamum.

Alcimus would hardly notice, though, that the slaves here at the docks outnumbered he and his fellow citizens twenty to one. As in all the cities around the Mediterranean, the wealth of Alcimus and his elite circle in Antioch was really purchased in the slave markets. If there were roughly 100,000 human beings in the city itself, more than half of those would likely be slaves. The proportion would be much higher in the surrounding estates. Granted, some of these slaves would be well treated, even highly educated. Alcimus employed one as a personal secretary, another to manage his workshops, a third to manage the mine he had purchased. There were household slaves who guarded his door, swept his floors, cooked his food, and served his guests for the drinking parties that went long into the night. Alcimus was hardly unusual in this. In fact, he still cast an envying eye on the houses and their staffs that were even larger than his own. And these household slaves would be clothed, fed, protected, as long as they did their work in dutiful silence. Alcimus did not need to beat them very often, and he always made sure any broken bones were set well by a surgeon. Hardly a thought was spared, though, for the gangs of slaves who worked the mine, never quite worked to death but living in fear of the next tunnel collapse.

Antioch was full of other stark contrasts too. The grand temples and collonnades shone new because so much had been destroyed by wave after wave of earthquakes, the price to be paid for Antioch’s fertile mountainous site. Alcimus and his circle had long ago adopted Greek or Roman names and worked to rid their Greek conversation of its telltale provincial accent. His children were taught Homer and Aeshylus, and the images adorning the walls of his Triclinium told of Dionysus and his Maenads. His household slaves, though, always had to be taught Greek when they arrived. Like the shopkeepers down the hill and the lowly craftsmen in his workshops, they spoke the harsh Aramaic native to Syria, picking up just enough Greek to get by at the docks or in the market. When they laid down on the floor to sleep, their prayers were whispered to Ba’al and Shamash, the same gods their great- great-grandparents had worshiped. This clash of cultures was managed, in daily life, by the Hellenistic conceit that identified every deity in the Syrian cults with some roughly similar god of the Greeks. So, on the festival days, both Alcimus and his cook Jason could be seen in the procession that wound up to the temple of the Zeus Battiaios, but the austere deity of the wealthy man’s piety shared little beyond a name with the old god of his cook’s understanding. To complicate matters further, the Egyptian deity Isis had gained a wide following in the city, while the high mountain grove of Daphne to the south drew pilgrims from around the Empire to its great temple of Apollo and the sensuous indulgences for which the beautiful valley was famous.

The Jews in Antioch

In this city of contrasts the scribe behind Matthew’s Gospel represented one more. For, though Antioch was a centre of gentile worship, it also boasted one of the largest and oldest Jewish communities outside of the Holy Land. In fact, the Hellenistic king of Syria included a large proportion of Jews among the first citizens of the city at its founding. The massive stone synagogue building where he had spent so many Sabbaths was built so long ago no one could agree who its founder had been, though it seemed that each generation expanded it and enriched its decoration. There was no problem in Antioch finding meat that had been butchered according to Torah, and the scribe’s gentile neighbours had been raised to accept the fact that he and his people did not worship the city’s gods. The Jews were, and had always been, full citizens of Antioch anyhow. This did not mean, though, that everyone always got along. Alcimus and his cook alike shared the human tendency to resent anyone different from themselves. The prominence and political influence of some Antiochian Jews was bound to stir up their neighbours’ envy, especially in lean years. So, while it was Herod the Great who generously paved the city’s broad main street with marble, we hear of riots around AD 40 which ended with the burning of at least one synagogue. Again in the sixties of the first century, as the Jewish rebellion flared up to the south, a certain Antiochus accused the Jews of plotting to burn the city. Like his namesake two centuries earlier, this Antiochus was able for a time to force Jews at sword-point to offer sacrifice to the city’s pagan gods. These periodic spasms of violence and resentment were always stifled again by the Roman authorities in Syria, but the Matthean scribe would doubtless have lived with a sense that his people’s position in Antioch was always a bit precarious.

Antioch and the Way of Christ

In Antioch, the message of Christ came first to the synagogue. According to Luke’s account, Jewish believers from Jerusalem gained a hearing in the Syrian capitol within a few short years of the resurrection. Doubtless, many Jews viewed this new “way” with suspicion, but many seem to have embraced the crucified Messiah. They would pray in the synagogue on the Sabbath, honouring their Creator, and then meet in homes on the first day of the week to learn about this Jesus who was Israel’s promised king. Though we now think of Christianity and Judaism as entirely separate religions, this would have seemed like a strange idea to the believers in Antioch. Even the Matthean scribe seems still to have understood his new family of Christ-followers, not as a departure from Judaism, but as the final fulfilment of Jewish expectation.

Yet Antioch was also, it seems, where Gentiles were first welcomed into the new “Way” of Christ as equal brothers and sisters. Barnabas, named by Luke as one of the very first leaders in the Antioch church, came there from Jerusalem where he seems to have been sympathetic to the “Hellenist” faction. These were Greek-speaking Jews, many no-doubt pilgrims from Jewish colonies outside the Holy Land, who came into conflict early on with the local Aramaic-speaking believers in Jerusalem. We know that many Jews of the “Diaspora” held that God would look with favour on gentiles who turned from idolatry and lived according to some basic principles of morality. Perhaps it is this strand of Jewish thought that led Barnabas and the Antioch community to welcome Gentiles to their “love feasts” as full participants, without any requirement that they observe the Jewish law. Both the Romanized Alcimus and his more Syrian cook would have been welcomed in those early years and, as they confessed their trust in this tortured king, simply taught them to be faithful to their wives, to deal honestly in business, to seek even the good of their competitors for status or customers, and above all to never bend their knee again to the pagan images that filled the city.

The Antioch position seems, though, to have ignited a fire-storm of argument among the first Christians, fuelled in part by the exploits of that church’s most famous (or infamous) figure, Paul. We hear of a council in Jerusalem convened to decide whether the Antioch believers had crossed the line with their openness. Soon after, a delegation arrived from Jerusalem (some “men from James”) and convinced the Jewish members of the church to withdraw from the non-kosher meals they had shared with their Gentile siblings. It seems, then, that the place of Torah in the life of a Christ-follower remained a touchy issue in Antioch for some time afterward. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the question of the law, and how believers ought to live, is so central to Matthew’s Gospel. Mark could have left readers with the impression that Torah was a thing of the past, superseded by simple devotion to Jesus. The Matthean scribe may be trying to help the Syrian Christians come to terms with the centrality and goodness of the Law, while at the same time remaining optimistic about God’s will for Gentiles. This inner-Christian debate is likely not enough, though, to explain the bitterness with which the book emphasizes God’s rejection of Israelites who refuse Jesus. It seems that, in the final decades of the first century, the tensions were running high between Christ-believers in Antioch and the other members of the synagogue. We need not jump to the conclusion that the other Jews had slammed the door on Christian participation in the wider Jewish community. Part of Matthew’s task, though, seems to be helping his people understand how they could be the true heir of Israel, even though so many in the synagogue will have none of their Messiah, and even though their ranks were swelled year after year by more of their Gentile neighbours.

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