|AMatthias Stom's depiction of Jesus before Caiaphas, c. 1630.|
If a biblical lesson starts off with a false assumption about the text the whole text is inadequately explained. The second lesson of the Presbyterian Women’s Bible study, Who is Jesus? What a Difference a Lens Makes, begins with a half-truth. The lesson, “According to Matthew,” written by Judy Yates Siker, is written around the assumption that the Jewish community and the Christian community were in conflict with each other because of the fall of Jerusalem.
In the midst of the crisis Siker believes each community was attempting to find their identity minus the sacrificial system. The Jewish community found their identity in the Law while the Christian community found their identity in Jesus and his interpretation of the law
Siker’s point is that Matthew and the community he was writing for were involved in a debate and the Christian side of the debate involved “derogatory remarks and venomous hate speech” which the author of the text placed in Jesus’ mouth. The words of the Jews at the trial of Jesus, that his blood should be on them and their children, is also blamed on the crisis of the community rather than the truth of history. Siker puts it this way:
“As we noted at the beginning of this lesson, the Gospel of Matthew was written at a time when there was great turmoil among the Jews; the temple at Jerusalem had recently been destroyed for a second (and final) time, and the Jews were struggling to determine for themselves what it meant to be a good Jew in the wake of this disaster. There were those who believed that even without the temple (and thus the sacrificial system) it was possible to remain strong in their faith because they had the Torah and could not only survive, but thrive, by living in accordance with God’s revealed law. They did not believe that the messiah had come. We call them non-messianic Jews. There were however, others who believed that the messiah had come—Jesus of Nazareth—and that he had fulfilled the Jewish law, he had offered the definitive understanding of the law; thus, through belief in him and his teachings, Jewish faith could flourish. We call these Messianic Jews.”
Siker goes on to explain that the non-messianic Jews evolved into rabbinic Judaism while the Messianic Jews became Christians. She writes that we are looking at an “in-house debate” and “sibling rivalry.” Siker’s explanation, “the mistake that many Christians have made over the centuries is to take the in-house Jewish debate from the first century, adopt its animosity and use it to denigrate the Jews across time. The misuse of our Scripture has resulted in centuries of anti-Semitism, culminating with the horrors of the Holocaust.”
While Siker’s concerns about hatred of the Jews are valid and compassionate, her understanding of the text and history is very confusing and wrong. It is a tangle that needs undoing.
First, while Rabbinic Judaism did evolve from the crisis of the loss of the temple, the conflict between Jew and Christian was really a conflict about who Jesus is, not about Jewish identity.
Second, Jesus’ words to the religious rulers of his day was in the long line of the Jewish prophets. Malachi, who was of the priestly line himself, shames the priests of his day insisting they despise the name of the Lord. He even tells them that God will spread refuse (manure) on their faces because they offer blemished sacrifices and do not honor God. Ezekiel, after God shows him the evil committed by the religious rulers in Jerusalem, including the priests, has him listen to the proclamations of their death by the hand of an angel. Isaiah and Jeremiah include the religious leaders in their prophetic judgments.
In the end Jesus wept over Jerusalem because of their rejection of his offer of salvation. The text is not hate speech but rather in the line of the prophetic word of the Jewish Bible.
Third, although too many people have misused the words of scripture against the Jewish people it was, in reality, those in the liberal tradition in Germany who combined their disbelief with a radical nationalism and helped to persecute the Jews to their death. They also, like many progressives today, did not uphold the authority of scripture. They also had texts that they tried to explain away.
All of this takes the focus away from who Jesus is. Siker rightly sees him, in Matthew, as a teacher like Moses. The book is written to the Jews. But there is so much more.
R.T. France in his Tyndale commentary on Matthew writes of Matthews theological emphases:
“The essential key to all of Matthew’s theology is that in Jesus all God’s purposes have come to fulfillment. That is, of course, true of all New Testament theology, but it is emphasized in a remarkable way in Matthew. Everything is related to Jesus. The Old Testament points forward to him; its law is ‘fulfilled’ in his teaching; he is the true Israel through whom God plans for his people to go forward; the future no less than the present is to be understood as the working out of the ministry of Jesus. History revolves around him, in that his coming is the turning point at which the age of preparation gives way to the age of fulfillment. Matthew leaves no room for any idea of the fulfillment of God’s purposes, whether for Israel or in any other respect, which is not focused in this theme of fulfillment in Jesus. In his coming a new age has dawned; nothing will ever be quite the same again.”
And France sees in Matthew several answers to who Jesus is. Matthew uses Messiah, Son of David, Son of Man, King and Son of God. But he uses them carefully that they might be filled with the additional understanding of one who is crucified for the sins of his people. And so that they might be seen as titles connected to the one who fulfills God’s purposes which means that several of them such as Son of Man has been enlarged.