Monday, August 25, 2008

The Five "Books" of Matthew?

Last week, in my preview of this past Sunday's Bible lessons and again yesterday during the adult gathering that happens before worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan every Sunday, I mentioned a theory first expounded in the 1930s. I've been asked to write a bit more about that here.

The theory held that the Gospel of Matthew, written for a first century Jewish Christian community, is organized around five major sermons or speeches by Jesus, each forming the core of five "books" that comprise the Gospel. That there are five major discourses by Jesus in Matthew's Gospel is undisputed. But what not all Biblical scholars accept is that these discourses are the centerpieces of the five "books."

While I think that it's silly to argue that writers like Matthew, Luke, and John were confined to just one organizing principle for their narrative, it does seem fairly obvious to me that there are five main speeches by Jesus recorded by Matthew and it seems that they do form the core of narrative sections that each deal with particular issues.

For example, it's held by some that yesterday's Gospel lesson, Matthew 16:13-20, comes at the end of a section that begins at Matthew 11:2-6. In the latter passage, a confused and imprisoned John the Baptist, perhaps expecting the Messiah to be a fire-and-brimstone bringer of vengeance, sends his disciples to Jesus to ask if Jesus really is the Messiah everyone was waiting for or if they should expect someone else. The section ends with Peter confessing what he clearly doesn't fully understand, that Jesus is the Messiah.

Advocates of the five book theory go too far in several ways, I think. First, the first scholar to widely promote the theory, B.W. Bacon, claimed that Matthew, a convert from Judaism, produced his Gospel as a condemnation of the Jews. In fact, Bacon called his book, The Five Books of Matthew Against the Jews. A fair-minded reading of Matthew cannot sustain this view, I feel.

Second, Bacon and others felt that Matthew had written a book designed to supplant the Old Testament covenant and set out to use the words of Jesus to create a new Pentateuch superceding the original. The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, referred to as the Torah was regarded as foundational for Old Testament faith. The problem with notions that Jesus sought to supercede Old Testament law is that He claimed to have come not to destroy or abolish the Old Testament law, but to fulfill it. And Matthew quotes Jesus in saying just that.

Authorship of the Pentateuch was traditionally attributed to Moses. Bacon et al also have claimed that Matthew attemtped to portray Jesus as, in some sense, the new Moses, God-enfleshed Who brought a new covenant to the world. But that doesn't seem to square with a fair-minded reading of Matthew either. Matthew portrays Jesus as not wanting to throw out the law at all.

But I do see something in the notion that there are five major sections built around Jesus' sayings in Matthew.

The five discourses around which the supposed books were built are:
  • The Sermon on the Mount (chs. 5-7)
  • Missionary Discourse (ch. 10)
  • Parables (ch. 13)
  • Community Instructions (ch. 18)
  • The Future and Judgment (ch.23-25)
These are sandwiched between accounts of Jesus' genealogy, birth, and infancy at the beginning of the Gospel and narratives of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection at the end, interspersed with narrative in between discourses.

I don't believe that Matthew used the five-book structure as a polemic against the Old Testament, but as a way of sending a message to his fellow Jesus. "Jesus," Matthew was telling them, "is the Messiah we've been looking for all these centuries."

1 comment:

smitty1e said...

There seems at times a hint of tragedy when any scholar or scientist staring at the subject too long starts to add material which is arguably not present.
Not unlike what the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized did with the Law itself.