Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (21 September 2014)



  • Exodus 16:2-15 & Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 [Jonah 3:10-4:11 & Psalm 145:1-8]
  • Philippians 1:21-30
  • Matthew 20:1-16

Gospel: Pay them all the same!

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is known only from Matthew. That single attestation would tend to count against the historical value of this story, but the nature of the story is such that most critics accept it as authentic.
Samuel T. Lachs [Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament] offers some partial rabbinic parallels to this parable:

There are three passages in rabbinic sources which are of note here; but not one combines both the form and the message of this parable. First, one could point to the well-known statement “Some obtain and enter the Kingdom in an hour, while others reach it only after a lifetime.” The idea here is parallel to that of the parable but not its form.

When R. Bun bar R. Hiyya died, R. Ze’ira came in and delivered a eulogy over him: “Sweet is the sleep of the labourer whether he has eaten little or much. It is not written here ‘sleep,’ but whether he has eaten little or much. To what can R. Bun bar R. Hiyya be compared? To a king who hired many laborers and there was one who was more skilled in his work, more [than others]. What did the king do? He walked up and down with him. At evening the laborers came to get their wages and he gave him the same wages as he gave to them. Whereupon they murmured and said, “We labored the whole day long and this one worked but two hours and he gave him the same as he gave us.’ The king said to them, ‘This one did in two hours more than you did in the entire day.’ Similarly, R. Bun labored in the study of Torah for twenty-eight years and learned what a diligent scholar could learn in a hundred years.” [TJ Ber 2.8, 5c]

… to what can this be compared? To a king who hired two laborers, one of them worked a whole day and received a dinar, and one worked one hour and received a dinar. Which one was more beloved to him [the king]? The one who worked one hour and received a dinar. Similarly, Moses our teacher served Israel for one hundred and twenty years, and Samuel served for fifty-two years, and the two of them were equal before the Omnipresent, as it is said, Then the Lord said to me, “Though Moses and Samuel stood before Me …” [Jer. 15.1], and likewise it is written, Moses and Aaron were among His priests, Samuel also was among those who called upon His name [Ps. 99.6], and similar to these verses it is said, sweet is the sleep of the laborer whether he has eaten little or much [Koh. 5.11]. [M. Semahot, ed. Higger, chap. 3, pp. 222-221]

The parable was voted red by the Jesus Seminar, with the commentary in The Five Gospels as follows:

This parable exaggerates the actions of the vineyard owner: he goes into the marketplace repeatedly to hire workers for the harvest. He begins at daybreak and continues the process until the eleventh hour of a twelve-hour day. The repetition of the owner’s activity and the play on words and themes are evidence of oral transmission.
When the time to pay the laborers comes, those hired at the end of the day are paid a full day’s wage (v. 9). Those hired at the outset of the day now expect to be paid something more than they had bargained for (v. 10). But they are paid the same wage, which, in the context of the story, is surprising (the story evokes responses and expectations that run counter to daily routine and to the policy of hardened employers). The conclusion of the parable is upsetting and disturbing for those who worked under the boiling sun the whole day; but it was also surprising for those who were paid a full day’s wage for only a few minutes of labor. The behavior of the vineyard owner cuts against the social grain.
In this parable, both groups of participants get what they did not expect: the first get less than they expected, in spite of their agreement with the owner (v. 2); the last get more than they expected, since as idlers they could not have expected much. This reversal of expectations comports with Jesus’ proclivity to reverse the expectations of the poor: “God’s domain belongs to you” (Luke 6:20) and the rich: “It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye than for a wealthy person to get into God’s domain” (Mark 10:25 // Matt 19:24 // Luke 18:25). As a consequence, the Fellows awarded this parable a red designation, although it is attested only by Matthew. (p. 225)

Gerd Lüdemann [Jesus] puts aside his usual historical skepticism and affirms the historicity of this parable:

This piece, which has been handed down only by the First Evangelist, is stamped with Matthean language … But we can rule out the possibility that the whole pericope is a Matthean construction, since v. 16 has been put here by Matthew taking up 19.30, and picks up only one detail of the pericope: the order of payment in v, 8b. Here Matthew understands the parable wrongly, since it in fact stresses the equality of the recompense and the reason for it (v. 15). (p. 212)

The parable inculcates one notion. God is gracious without discrimination to all who are active in his vineyard, Israel. It is free from ideas which could have come from the community, and also corresponds to Jesus’ message that God seeks the lost (cf. Luke 15.11-32; 18.9-14). The parable certainly goes back to Jesus. (p. 213)

B. Brandon Scott [Reimagine the World] comments on the social significance of the parable:

In the Vineyard Laborers, the first hired complain that by paying the last hired the same amount they have received, the master has made them equal. Their essential complaint is that the master has destroyed the order of the world. The entire Roman empire was organized as a patron-client system. The ultimate patron was the emperor, and power worked its way downward, with his clients in turn becoming patrons for yet other clients. And their fleas have fleas, too. Such a system ensures a hierarchically arranged social order in which no one is equal and every social engagement is a contest to determine one’s place in the hierarchy. (p. 132)

David Flusser [Jesus] observes:

The paradox of Jesus’ break with the customary old morality was marvelously expressed in the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16). … Here as elsewhere the principle of reward is accepted by Jesus, but all the norms of the usual concepts of God’s righteousness are abrogated. One might think that this comes about because God, in His all-embracing love and mercy, makes no distinctions between men. With Jesus, however, the transvaluation of all values is not idyllic. Even misfortune does not distinguish between the sinner and the just man. … Jesus’ concept of the righteousness of God, therefore, is incommensurable with reason. Man cannot measure it, but he can grasp it. It leads to the preaching of the kingdom in which the last will be first, and the first last. It leads also from the Sermon on the Mount to Golgotha where the just man dies a criminal’s death. It is at once profoundly moral, and yet beyond good and evil. In this paradoxical scheme, all the “important,” customary virtues, and the well-knit personality, worldly dignity, and the proud insistence upon the formal fulfillment of the law, are fragmentary and empty. Socrates questioned the intellectual side of man. Jesus questioned the moral. Both were executed. Can this be mere chance? (p. 101f)

Jeremias Jeremias [The Parables of Jesus, 34-38]offers this insightful interpretation of the parable:

[Matthew] has inserted into a Marcan context the parable about the ‘first’ (Matt. 20.8,10) and the ‘last’ (Matt. 20.8,12,14), in order to illustrate the saying in Mark 10.31 (par. Matt. 19.30), “But many that are first will be last, and the last first,” with which Mark ends the previous address to Peter. … for Matthew our parable represented the reversal of rank which would take place on the last day. He will have drawn this conclusion from the instruction given to the steward, v. 8b:

“Call the laborers and pay them their wages,
beginning with the last, up to the first.”

… But [the order of payment] is clearly an unimportant detail in the course of the parable. There can be no great significance in the order of payment; a couple of minutes earlier or later can hardly be said to assign precedence to anyone or deprive him of it. In fact, no complaint is made later on about the order of payment which, taken in context, should merely emphasize the equality of the last with the first. Perhaps it is simply intended to indicate how ‘the first were made to witness the payment of their companions.’ But it may be simpler to take arxamenos apo to mean, as it often does, ‘not omitting,’ ‘including,’ so that v. 8 was not originally concerned with the order of payment at all, but meant, rather — ‘Pay them all their wages, including the last.’ In any case the parable certainly conveys no lesson about the reversal of rank at the end of time since all receive exactly the same wage.

… each hearer must have been compelled to ask himself the question, ‘Why does the master of the house give the unusual order that all are to receive the same pay? Why especially does he allow the last to receive a full day’s pay for only an hour’s work? Is this a piece of purely arbitrary injustice? a caprice? a generous whim?’ Far from it! There is no question here of a limitless generosity, since all receive only an amount sufficient to sustain life, a bare subsistence wage. No one receives more. Even if, in the case of the last laborers to be hired, it is their own fault that, in a time when the vineyard needs workers, they sit about in the marketplace gossiping till late afternoon; even if their excuse that no one has hired them (v. 7) is an idle evasion … yet they touch the master’s heart. He sees that they will have practically nothing to take home; the pay for an hour’s work will not keep a family; their children will go hungry if the father comes home empty-handed. It is because of his pity for their poverty that the owner allows them to be paid a full day’s wages. In this case the parable does not depict an arbitrary action, but the behaviour of a large-hearted man who is compassionate and full of sympathy for the poor. This, says Jesus, is how God deals with men. This is what God is like, merciful. Even to tax-farmers and sinners he grants an unmerited place in his Kingdom, such is the measure of his goodness. The whole emphasis lies on the final words: oti ego agathos eimi [because I am good] (v. 15)!

Why did Jesus tell the parable? Was it his object to extol God’s mercy to the poor? If that were so he might have omitted the second part of the parable (vv. 11ff). But it is precisely upon the second part that the main stress lies, for our parable is one of the double-edged parables. It describes two episodes: (1) the hiring of the laborers and the liberal instructions about their payment (vv. 1-8), (2) the indignation of the injured recipients (vv. 9-15). Now, in all the double-edged parables the emphasis falls on the second point. What, then, is the purpose of the second part, the episode in which the other laborers are indignant, rebel, and protest, and receive the humiliating reply: ‘Are you jealous because I am good?’ The parable is clearly addressed to those who resembled the murmurers, those who criticized and opposed the good news, Pharisees for example. Jesus was minded to show them how unjustified, hateful, loveless and unmerciful was their criticism. Such, he said, is God’s goodness, and since God is so good, so too am I. He vindicates the gospel against its critics. Here, clearly, we have recovered the original historical setting. We are suddenly transported into a concrete situation in the life of Jesus such as the Gospels frequently depict. Over and over again we hear the charge brought against Jesus that he is a companion of the despised and the outcast, and are told of men to whom the gospel is an offence. Repeatedly is Jesus compelled to justify his conduct and to vindicate the good news. So too here he is saying, This is what God is like, so good, so full of compassion for the poor, how dare you revile him?

Jesus Database

  • 031 First and Last – (1) GThom. 4:2 & P. Oxy. 654.4:2; (2) 2Q: Luke 13:30 = Matt 20:16;(3) Mark 10:31 = Matt 19:30; (4) Barn 6:13a [this last attestation is not included in Crossan's version of this inventory]

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

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Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (14 September 2014)



  • Exodus 14:19-31 & Psalm 114 (or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21) or [Genesis 50:15-21 & Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13]
  • Romans 14:1-12
  • Matthew 18:21-35

Exodus Paradigm of salvation (for some)

The first reading and (optional) canticle from the RCL propers celebrate the great story of redemption known as “the exodus.”

This story poses many challenges for the thoughtful reader:

  • its historicity is radically questioned by critical scholars
  • its humanitarian value is qualified by the “collateral damage” caused to the Egyptians
  • its spiritual influence is cast in a new light with findings from other traditions

My own personal encounter with these ambiguities came one morning in Egypt with a group of students on a course from St George’s College in Jerusalem. We had stayed overnight in a hotel by the Suez Canal and would soon take the bus under the water (courtesy of a tunnel not available to Moses and his friends) so that we could travel to Mt Sinai. As was our custom, we began the day with a celebration of Eucharist — this time in a corner of the hotel dining room. We were joined by a local Coptic Christian woman who worked as a waitress in the dining room. It may have been her presence (or it may have the presence of a great many more Egyptians around us as we worshipped), but suddenly I was struck by the incongruity of reading (as we were doing) the story of the victory at the Sea. Apart from the insensitivity of rehearsing the ancient tale of God slaying the Egyptians and their horses, the experience made me ask where an Egyptian Christian might find “good news” in such a text.

History and miracle

The divide between “faithful believer” and “critic/doubter” is always placed under pressure when biblical stories employ magic and miracle to convey their message. Naturalistic explanations were once the favored tool of the rationalist, but these days are often found pressed into service by fundamentalists and “maximalists” who wish to preserve the essential historicity of the biblical narrative even if they reduce the supernatural element to a scale unworthy of divine intervention.

So, for example, believers who cite historical reports of unusually low tides in the Suez region, such that a person might pick their way carefully through the mud, have hardly validated the biblical account in which the Israelites cross over on dry land with the waters piled up on either side! Similar explanations of the miraculous manna (as insect droppings or dried dew), or reports of the Jordan River being temporarily dammed by mud slides, hardly do God much of a favor. One is tempted to ask why God would need critics with friends such as that?

In his book, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (1999), Thomas L. Thompson has a chapter headed “Confusing stories with historical evidence.” That is a timely warning for us to appreciate the symbolic nature of the biblical narratives, and especially so when the details of the story are incompatible with known historical and natural realities.

Miracle is a great genre for communicating profound human meaning, including religious wisdom. It is never a good basis for historical reconstruction.

W.G. Plaut comments as follows:

But when all is said and done, no examination of presumed natural causes should overshadow the central fact (sic): Israel experienced the event as divinely determined, a miracle in the true sense. It was God who brought about the Egyptians’ downfall; He may have used wind and water, cloud and darkness as His agents, but it was His will that Israel be saved, and saved it was. According to Buber, a discussion of the possibility of miracles, which has so long divided the faithful believer from critic and doubter, is therefore beside the point when one comes to assess the manner in which the rescue affected Israel’s conception of God. “It is irrelevant whether ‘much’ or ‘little,’ unusual things or usual, tremendous or trifling events happened; what is vital is only that what happened was experienced, while it happened, as the act of God. The people saw in whatever it was they saw ‘the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded’ and ‘they had faith in the Lord.’ From the biblical viewpoint history always contains the element of wonder.'” [The Torah, 483]

Exodus and history

Plaut’s comments, including the excerpt from Martin Buber, still presume that something actually happened, even if they prefer to focus on what the story means for the person of faith. But it is precisely that historical assumption that is increasingly challenged by more radical critics.

Thompson notes that there are several variants to the exodus tradition even within the Hebrew Bible:

  • divine defeat of the Sea (Dragon) — Exodus 15
  • carried on eagles wings — Deut 32:10-18
  • carried by the angels to avoid even stumbling over a stone — Psalm 91:11-12
  • angel of Yahweh encamps around the faithful — Psalm 34:7

To these we could add the analogous stories from Bible and the wider culture where prose accounts of victories are elaborated with poetic freedom to express the perceived inner meaning of the tradition.

In chapter two of The Bible Unearthed (2001), Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman consider the Exodus traditions, as they pose the question: “Did the Exodus happen?” After a review of the archaeological data, they conclude:

… independent archaeological and historical sources tell of migrations of Semites from Canaan to Egypt, and of Egyptians forcibly expelling them. This basic outline of immigration and violent return to Canaan is parallel to the biblical account of Exodus. Two key questions remain: First, who were these Semitic immigrants? And second, how does the date of their sojourn in Egypt square with biblical chronology? (p. 56)

As is well known, the chronology of the Hyksos rulers in Egypt cannot be “squared” with the biblical narrative, even though it illustrates an historical pattern of penetration and expulsion that is more ancient and more common than the Bible suggests. In addition the mention of “Israel” in the Merneptah Stele (dated to around 1,200 BCE) attests to the existence of a group with that name in Canaan around that time, but tells us nothing about their character or their historical origins. Not a single text from either Canaan or Egypt mentions “Israel” until around 1200 BCE.

More importantly, the consolidation of native Egyptian power following the expulsion of the Hyksos led to a system of fortifications along the eastern border of the delta region to control precisely the kind of entry and exit portrayed in the Bible. We have written reports from border officials about the movement of Edomite nomads at this time, but not a single reference to Israelites. Further, despite extensive archaeological surveys in the Sinai peninsula that have produced clear data of pastoral activity in the third millennium BCE as well as during the Hellenistic and Byzantine eras, there is not a shred of evidence of Israel’s presence in this area:

The conclusion — that the Exodus did not happen at the time and in the manner described in the Bible — seems irrefutable when we examine the evidence at specific sites where the children of Israel were said to have camped for extended periods … repeated excavations and surveys throughout the entire area have not provided even the slightest evidence for activity in the Late Bronze Age, not even a single sherd left by a tiny fleeing band of frightened refugees. (Bible Unearthed, 63)

As it happens, Finkelstein and Silberman suggest that the Exodus story reflects its real composition in the very different circumstances of late seventh century Jerusalem:

… Egyptologist Donald Redford has suggested [the Bible reflects later conditions in the Iron Age]. The most evocative and consistent geographical details of the Exodus story come from the seventh century BCE, during the great era of prosperity of the kingdom of Judah — six centuries after the events of the Exodus were supposed to have taken place. Redford has shown just how many details in the Exodus narrative can be explained in this setting, which was also Egypt’s last period of imperial power … (p. 65f)

… Redford has argued that the echoes of the great events of the Hyksos occupation of Egypt and their violent expulsion from the delta resounded for centuries, to become a central, shared memory of the people of Canaan. These stories of the Canaanite colonists establishing in Egypt, reaching dominance in the delta and then being forced to return to their homeland, could have served as a focus of solidarity and resistance as the Egyptian control over Canaan grew tighter in the course of the Late Bronze Age. As we will see, with the eventual assimilation of many Canaanite communities into the crystallizing nation of Israel, that powerful image of freedom may have grown relevant for an ever-widening community.(p. 68f)

Finkelstein and Silberman offer this assessment of the theological meaning of this ancient but newly minted myth of origins:

New layers would be added to the Exodus story in subsequent centuries — during exile in Babylonia and beyond. But we can now see how the astonishing composition came together under the pressure of a conflict with Egypt in the seventh century BCE. The saga of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt is neither historical truth nor literary fiction. It is a powerful expression of memory and hope born in a world in the midst of change. The confrontation between Moses and pharaoh mirrored the momentous confrontation between the young King Josiah and the newly crowned Pharaoh Necho. To pin this biblical image down to a single date is to betray the story’s deepest meaning. Passover proves to be not a single event but a continuing experience of national resistance against the powers that be. (p. 70f)

Such an interpretation of the Exodus tradition relieves both God and Israel from accusations of crimes against humanity. More importantly, perhaps, it connects the development of the paradigmatic story with the lived experience of many people over several centuries. Believer and pagan have a stake in this story. It is our story. An Egyptian could discover good news in a story that celebrates resistance to the powers that be for the sake of the human desire for freedom. Even a Palestinian might celebrate Passover when the tradition is understood in this way. Exodus could be their story also.

Gospel: Love does not keep score

The Gospel passage for this week reflects a theme that we also find in that most popular of all reading for wedding services — the Hymn to Love in 1 Corinthians 13. The core section of that passage reads:

Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It is not rude, it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered,
it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. (1Cor 13:4-8a NIV)

In particular, the statement in v 5b seems especially related to the concerns in this week’s Gospel: “(love) keeps no record of wrongs” (Greek: ou logizetai to kakon).

The Gospel falls naturally into two sections:

  • Vss 21-22: Peter’s question (seven times?) and Jesus’ reply (seventy-seven times!!!)
  • Vss 23-35: Parable of the Unforgiving Slave

Don’t do the math

The point of the memorable exchange between Peter and Jesus is simply that keeping score is not the way of love.

At the heart of the exchange we find the deliberate exaggeration of numbers. Peter’s question already provides an extreme case. Unlike the contemporary saying, “One bitten, twice shy”, Peter is suggesting that forgiving a fellow Christian seven times over is surely more than sufficient. Jesus’ reply extrapolates the numerical value, with the clear intention that the truly loving response to such unwelcome mistreatment can never include keeping tally of how often the other party has sinned – nor (conversely) keeping a tally of how generous our own forebearance has been!

In the Greek original Jesus reply is hebdomeœkontakis hepta — which mostly likely means “seventy-seven” (77) but can mean “seven thousand seven hundred and seventy-seven” (7,777). While the scale of the hyperbole is uncertain, the intention is clear: Don’t keep score!

The unmerciful slave

The parable that follows in vss 23-35 is unqiue to Matthew, and for that reason alone its authenticity can be questioned.

Robert Fortna (Scholars Bible, Matthew) comments:

[This parable is] no doubt placed here for its lesson of forgiveness. Possibly authentic to Jesus, in some form (as the exaggeration in vs 24—ten million dollars—suggests), but certainly not as an allegory of God’s forgiveness. And Jesus’ parables did not usually have an obvious ethical moral.

Fortna later comments on the relative sizes of the debts owed by and to the slave:

ten million dollars: Greek: 20,000 talents. No factor can realistically translate this amount into contemporary terms, but it was obviously vast; in fact unimaginably so. The exaggeration for effect, no doubt, to contrast outlandishly with the amount in vs 28. … a hundred dollars: In Greek, “100 denarii.” Whatever the precise modern equivalent, an infinitesimal fraction of the 10,000 talents he owed the master.

BADG provides the following information on the meaning of a talent in the Hellenistic world:

… a measure of weight varying in size fr. about 26 to 36 kg.; then a unit of coinage talent (lit., ins, pap, LXX, TestSol; TestJud 9:5; TestJos 18:3; EpArist; Jos., Bell. 5, 571, C. Ap. 2, 266), whose value differed considerably in various times and places, but was always comparatively high; it varied also with the metal involved, which might be gold, silver, or copper. In our lit. only in Mt 18:24; 25:15–28. In 18:24, at 6,000 drachmas or denarii to the Tyrian talent, a day laborer would need to work 60,000,000 days to pay off the debt. Even assuming an extraordinary payback rate of 10 talents per year, the staggering amount would ensure imprisonment for at least 1,000 years.

Jesus Database

  • 418 The Unmerciful Servant – (1) Matt 18:23-34(35). [Crossan does not include v. 35 in his database, while the Jesus Seminar counts it as a separate saying (#1159) forming part of the same item (46 Unmerciful Slave) and gave it a 100% Black assessment at the meeting held in Cincinnati in 1990.]

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

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Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (7 September 2014)



  • Exodus 12:1-14 & Psalm 149 (or Ezekiel 33:7-11 & Psalm 119:33-40)
  • Romans 13:8-14
  • Matthew 18:15-20

Season of Creation

Soc logo.gif

In the seasons of Advent, Epiphany, Lent and Easter we celebrate the life of Christ. In the season of Pentecost we celebrate the Holy Spirit. Now, in the season of Creation, congregations and other Christian faith communities have an opportunity to celebrate God, the Creator.

For four Sundays in September, prior to St Francis of Assisi Day, some communities of faith observe a “Season of Creation” that celebrates the wonders of the natural order with which we are integrally connected. The Season of Creation web site offers a rich set of resources, including an amazing photo archive you may well wish to visit at other times as well:

  • Liturgical resources that follow the lead of the psalm writers and celebrate with creation — with the forests, the rivers and the fields, which praise the Creator in their own way.
  • Alternative Bible readings that focus especially on the story of Earth, which complements the story of God and the story of humanity in the Scriptures.
  • Opportunities to commit ourselves to a ministry of healing Earth, with Christ and creation as our partners.

Gospel: Jesus and the Rabbinic tradition

The few verses that comprise this week’s Gospel in all the major western lectionaries present Jesus imagined through the lens of traditional religious leadership within the Jewish community. There is little of the idiosyncratic sage of Galilee in this characterization. Matthew’s Jesus can easily be imagined wrapped in a prayer shawl as he intones the Torah for the gathered community.

Rabbinic parallels

The authentic Jewish roots of this depiction are affirmed by Samuel Lachs [Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament] as he notes how the traditions applied to Jesus here are well-attested in rabbinic sources.

  • 15 … go and tell him his fault. – Gr. elegxein is the Heb. hokhi’ah, “to rebuke.” This passage goes back to Lev. 19.17, You shall surely rebuke your brother.
  • 16 two or three witnesses – Following the principle that any trial involving evidence must be attested to by at least two witnesses whose testimony agrees.
  • 17 Gentiles and a tax collector – On Gentile, Gr. ethnikoi. The term occurs only five times in the NT, three in Matt. (5.47, 6.7, 18.17), once in Gal. (2.14), and once in 3 John (7). It has been variously translated as “gentiles,” “pagans,” and “heathens.” This is strange, since Matthew, when referring to the non-Jewish world, would always employ ethnos. It is likewise significant that Jerome, when translating the Matthean passages where ethnikoi appears, renders it by gentibus. Presumably Jerome realized that ethnikoi was not employed by Matthew as a general term for the non-Jew, rather it designated a specific group within the Jewish people. … in Matt. 5.47 and 18.17 ethnikoi are coupled with the tax collector or the tax farmer, who represent the antithesis of correct behavior. Matthew also emphasizes that the faithful should do more than the Scribes and Pharisees, whom he calls the hypocrites, a favorite epithet for this group. Presumably all these are Jews, i.e., the tax collectors, the Scribes, the Pharisees, and the ethnikoi. Furthermore the adelphoi of Matt 5.47 means “one’s fellow disciples”; those who act properly and in conformity with religious principles, while the ethnikoi are those who do not observe the religious traditions of the people. We suggest that the term ethnikoi refers to the am ha-arez, lit. “the people of the land.” Originally it meant only the farming population. Subsequently it came to connote those who were lax in taking the tithe from the produce of the field, thus causing the unsuspecting purchaser to eat untithed food and thereby to violate a biblical law. Finally, am ha-arez became a term for the ignoramus, the unlettered and the boor. It is of interest and perhaps of significance that there is a parallel development in the word “pagan.” Originally he was one who came from the pagus, a rustic, but later it came to mean the superstitious and from that the idolator. The same is true of the word “heathen,” one from the heath, hence a countryman, a peasant, a rustic, which took on the meaning of an illiterate. In support of our identification of the ethnikoi with the am ha-arez, note that Justinian employed ethnikos to designate the “provincial.” The am ha-arez was looked down upon by all members of the Pharisaic community and was charged with many counts of reprehensible behaviour. [page 109f]
  • the church – Matthew is the only gospel writer who uses this term, here and in 16.18. The Gr. ekklesia is the Heb. qahal, kenesset; Aram. kenisha.
  • 18 bind … loose – These are undoubtedly translations of either the Aram. asar and share or the Heb asar and hitir. They mean to forbid and/or to permit some act which is determined by the application of the halakah. [page 256f]
  • 19 if two of you agree, etc – This must have reference to the decision of the petit court of three judges where the decision is arrived at by the agreement of at least two of the judges. There is a tradition that when a court renders a just decision God Himself (the Shekhinah) abides with them:

R. Hananya the son of Teradyon said: “If two sit together and interchange no words of Torah, they are a meeting of scoffers, concerning whom it is said, The godly man sits not in the seat of the scoffers; but if two sit together and interchange the words of the Torah, the Shekhinah abides between them, as it is said, Then they that feared the Lord spoke one with the other, and the Lord hearkened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him, for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon His name. [M. Avot 3.3]

R. Halafta the son of Dosa of the village of Hananya said: “When ten people sit together and occupy themselves with the Torah, the Shekhinah abides among them … And whence can it be shown that the same applies to three? because it is said, He judgeth among the judges [the minimum number of judges being three], hence can it be shown that the same applies to two? Because it is said, Then they that feared the Lord, etc.” [M. Avot 3.8]

Jesus Seminar

The Jesus Seminar commentary on these verses in The Five Gospels [page 216f] reads as follows:

Matthew has taken a Q passage as the basis for this segment of sayings (the parallels are found in Luke 17:3-4). He has used it in vv. 15 and 21-22 to frame materials of his own devising.

Scold & forgive. This verse and vv. 21-22 are derived from Q, which is better preserved in Luke 17:3-4:

If your companion does wrong, scold that person; if there is a change of heart, forgive the person. If someone wrongs you seven times a day, and seven times turns around and says to you, “I’m sorry,” you should forgive that person.

In Q the advice for dealing with wrongdoing is simpler and briefer than Matthew’s version. In either case, the regulations are relevant to a time when the Christian community had to develop procedures for dealing with deviant behavior.

Binding & releasing. Verse 16 is based on Deut 19:15: “A single witness is not sufficient to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing … Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses can a charge be sustained.” Matthew has here introduced precedent from Hebrew Law, in accordance with the Christian practice of citing scripture as a way of buttressing its incipient bureaucracy.

Matthew then further elaborates the procedures: take the unrepentant before the congregation; if that fails, treat the person as “a pagan nor toll-collector.” Not only do these suggestions reflect later social practice, they also appear inimical to Jesus’ regard for toll-collectors and sinners (note especially Matt 9:10-13; 10:3; 11:19, and Luke 18:10-140). Later on, in Matt 21:31b, Jesus is even reported to have said, “I swear to you, the toll-collectors and prostitutes will get into God’s domain, but you [the Pharisees] will not.” Fifty-three percent of the Fellows voted red or pink on Matt 21:31b, although the weighted average came out gray; gray and black votes were occasioned by doubt that there were Pharisees in Galilee during Jesus’ public ministry there. The Fellows agreed that Jesus was entirely sympathetic with toll-collectors and sinners; they also agreed that procedures such as those described in v. 17 could not have originated with Jesus.

Verse 18 expands on the authority assigned to Peter in Matt 16:19. It obviously reflects the position of Peter in Matthew’s branch of the emerging institution, but it would not have been accepted by Paul (in this connection, note Gal 2:7-9, 11-14). This is Matthew’s language, not that of Jesus, inasmuch as it reflects the organization and rivalries in the infant church.

Two or three. Verse 19 again reflects Deut 19:15 (cited in v, 1t6 above). It is an addition of Matthew to bolster the church’s claim to the authority to bind and release.

“Wherever two or three are gathered in my name” has rabbinic parallels and was probably a standard feature of Judean piety. Since it was a part of common lore, Jesus cannot be designated as its author.

Seventy-seven times. In vv. 21-22, Matthew appears to be correcting a literal misunderstanding of Q’s advice to forgive seven times (see the Q version cited at the beginning of this section): according to Matthew, after being wronged, one is to forgive not seven times, but seventy-seven times, possibly reflecting the influence of Gen 4:24. Here one can observe the early Christian community reflecting on and modifying its regulations for dealing with backsliders and errant behaviour.

Nothing in this relatively long complex can be attributed to Jesus. The Q community’s rules of order are being reported and modified by Matthew.

Word Biblical Commentary

While leaving open the theoretical possibility that these instructions derive in some sense from the historical Jesus, the conservative Evangelical scholar, Donald Hagner, acknowledges that this passage is most likely the creative work of Matthew and is driven by the post-Easter experience of conflict within the Matthean community:

There is without question a certain anachronism about this pericope, which views the church as a distinct entity and, indeed, one with considerable organization. The present form of the discourse speaks obviously to the church of Matthew’s day. If, however, Jesus was able to conceive of and plan for a community to carry on the work of the kingdom after his death (see Comment on 16:18), then he could also have made provision for the future existence of that community through the type of teaching found in this pericope. Matthew has probably taken sayings from the tradition and molded them into this pericope (as he has for the discourse as a whole) and thus given them somewhat more immediate relevance for his church.
Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28 (WBC 33B; Accordance/Thomas Nelson electronic ed. Dallas: Word Books, 1995), 531.

Hermeneia commentary

Ulrich Luz, one of the leading Matthean specialists of our time, identifies the probable process by which Matthew created this pericope:

Matthew uses the same method in this discourse that he uses in chapters 10, 13, 23, 24–25. To a foundation from the Gospel of Mark (Mark 9:33–37, 42–47 = vv. 1–9) he adds Q material and his own special material. From the sayings source he takes Q 17:1–4 = vv. 6–7, 15, 22. The parable of the unmerciful steward (vv. 23–35) and possibly the parable of the lost sheep as well (vv. 12–13) come from his own material. In my judgment he had them only in oral form.
Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8–20: A Commentary on Matthew 8–20 (Hermeneia 61B; ed. Helmut Koester; trans. James E. Crouch; Accordance electronic ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 423.

New Interpreter’s Bible

Eugene Boring notes both the lack of fit with other actions, attitudes and sayings attributed to Jesus, and the underlying Christocentric character of these instructions:

18:17. The language used seems strangely harsh, since Jesus (and his community) is accused of befriending tax collectors and sinners, as well as Gentiles (9:11; 11:19). The practice of excommunication also seems strange, from the perspective expressed in 7:1–5 and 13:37–43. These tensions may be due to the incorporation of conflicting traditions in the history of the community’s development, or to applying them to different cases. It is clear, however, that if Matthew’s church does not already have a procedure for disciplining dangerously errant members, one is here provided, spoken in the name of Jesus. While this procedure involves the judgment of “the congregation,” it is not clear whether this presupposes the presence of church [Vol. 8, p. 379] leaders, through whom the congregation acts, or whether the assembly functions as a committee of the whole (see Introduction). In any case, the Christian community as a whole is concerned with the ethics of its individual members, and it intervenes in the spirit of love and forgiveness to take pastoral action that is more than mere advice. The goal is not only to maintain the holiness of the insiders, but to bring straying members to an awareness of their sins, to repentance, and eventual restoration as well (cf. 18:15, “gain”).
18:18–20. With a pair of solemn amen sayings (see on 5:18), the Matthean Jesus assures the church of the divine ratification of its decisions.420 The authority given Peter to make legal decisions for the church as a whole (16:19) is here given the congregation in matters of its own discipline. By placing v. 19 in this context, Matthew applies an originally independent saying, encouraging group prayer, to the matter of church discipline. Likewise, in v. 20, an originally independent saying assuring the church of the continuing presence of Christ during the time of its mission—a major theme of Matthean theology (cf. on 1:23; 28:20)—is here applied to the particular case of the church’s making its disciplinary decisions. Just as contemporary Judaism handed on sayings to the effect that wherever two or three discuss words of Torah they are attended by the divine presence,421 so also Matthew’s church proclaims that when it gathers in Jesus’ name, Christ himself is present. The church is Christocentric rather than Torah-centric.
M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in General Articles on the New Testament; Matthew-Mark (vol. 8 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 378-379.

Boring then offers this reflection on the gap between the underlying view of Christian life presupposed by Matthew 18 and our contemporary individualistic perspective:

1. The instructions in this passage concern a matter not only of personal relations but also of preserving and reconciling a straying member of the community, while preserving the community’s integrity as the holy covenant people of God. Matthew’s community orientation and our individualistic one come into sharp conflict. Matthew offers a solution to something we hardly perceive as a problem, since we are inclined to see our sin as a matter between ourselves and God, or, at most, between ourselves and the person who has wronged us. That it is a matter of the Christian congregation to which we belong, and may damage its life, comes as a surprise to both us and them, if they are as individualistic as we are. Whatever we think of the solution Matthew offers, we might first ponder the nature of the Christian life it presupposes. A doctrine of the church as the people of God is here presupposed. To be Christian is to be bound together in community; to pray is to say “our Father,” even in the privacy of our own room (Matt 6:6, 9).
M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” 379.

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Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (31 August 2014)



  • Exodus 3:1-15 & Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b (or Jeremiah 15:15-21 & Psalm 26:1-8)
  • Romans 12:9-21
  • Matthew 16:21-28

First Reading: Theophany at Sinai

The story of Moses and the burning bush is one of the great religious classics of humanity. This quintessential “I-thou” story of encounter with the Sacred Other captures themes that lie at the heart of the religious experience.

Within the traditional Hebrew narrative structures that run through this part of the Pentateuch, this episode is a key part of the Moses narrative. The encounter with God in the burning bush epiphany is a revelation of the identity of the One who will redeem the Hebrew slaves and also the divine call for Moses to play his part in the drama of salvation. Both the prophetic character of Moses and also the special nature of his relationship with God are established in this episode.

While there is no historical value to this tradition as an account of ancient Israel’s historical origins, this is a powerful story about the origins of the religious quest that became Israel’s great contribution to human culture and which is today expressed in all three biblical religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

At the heart of this story lies the mysterious dialogue in which God reveals the divine name, using a formula that evades precise translation.

Martin Buber

For one especially famous exposition of the religious significance of the Sinai theophany the writings of the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber (1878-1965): extract

Nahum Sarna

The following commentary comes from the JPS Torah Commentary edited by Nahum Sarna:

Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh This phrase has variously been translated, “I Am That I Am,” “I Am Who I Am,” and “I Will Be What I Will Be.” It clearly evokes YHVH, the specific proper name of Israel’s God, known in English as the Tetragrammaton, that is, “the four consonants.” The phrase also indicates that the earliest recorded understanding of the divine name was as a verb derived from the stem h-v-h, taken as an earlier form of h-y-h, “to be.” Either it expresses the quality of absolute Being, the eternal, unchanging, dynamic presence, or it means, “He causes to be.” YHVH is the third person masculine singular; ehyeh is the corresponding first person singular. This latter is used here because name-giving in the ancient world implied the wielding of power over the one named; hence, the divine name can only proceed from God Himself.
In the course of the Second Temple period the Tetragrammaton came to be regarded as charged with metaphysical potency and therefore ceased to be pronounced. It was replaced in speech by ’adonai, “Lord,” rendered into Greek Kyrios. Often the vowels of ’adonai would later accompany YHVH in written texts. This gave rise to the mistaken form Jehovah. The original pronunciation was eventually lost; modern attempts at recovery are conjectural.
God’s response to Moses’ query cannot be the disclosure of a hitherto unknown name, for that would be unintelligible to the people and would not resolve Moses’ dilemma. However, taken together with the statement in 6:3, the implication is that the name YHVH only came into prominence as the characteristic personal name of the God of Israel in the time of Moses. This tradition accords with the facts that the various divine names found in Genesis are no longer used, except occasionally in poetic texts; that of all the personal names listed hitherto, none is constructed of the prefixed yeho-/yo- or the suffixed -yahu/yah contractions of YHVH; that the first name of this type is yokheved (Jochebed), that of Moses’ mother. Ibn Ezra points out that Moses, in his direct speech, invariably uses the name YHVH, not ’elohim, “God.” Without doubt, the revelation of the divine name YHVH to Moses registers a new stage in the history of Israelite monotheism.

W. G. Plaut

The following extracts from W.G. Plaut, The Torah. A Modern Commentary provide some further examples of Jewish interpretation of this tradition:

In this first theophany, the divine Presence is called by three names: “God” (Elohim), “Lord” (YHVH), and a name not translated in our English text, “Ehyeh.” Of these, only the last name is new to Moses, the other two are familiar to him and are not explained: Elohim is the basic generic name for any god and hence also for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (verse 6); and “Lord” or YHVH is God’s own, personal name, known to him, but — as chapter 6 will show — not yet understood in its full meaning. Here it is merely restated that, whatever the additional and newly revealed name Ehyeh betokens, God’s own name YHVH will not be affected, it will remain the same (verse 15).
The name Elohim is known to the reader from the story of Creation on. It is an expansion or variant of the name El, which generally describes the godhead in Semitic languages (Ugaritic El; Babylonian Ilu; Arabic Allah). Prevailing scholarly opinion connects it with a root meaning “to be strong.” In the Hebrew Bible, Elohim is used both for the God of Israel and generically for the gods of the nations, and, in the Torah, Elohim is the name preferred by the tradition called Elohist (or E; in contrast to J which prefers YHVH).
YHVH (“Lord”) is the distinguishing name by which Israelites called their God. After the theophany related here, in chapter 3, Moses will bring the message of salvation to Israel as well as to Egypt, and the result of this mission will necessitate a further revelation of God, who (in chapter 6) will give to the old name YHVH a new dimension. …
In the first meeting with God, Moses is satisfied that his knowledge of the divine Name, that is, his knowledge of God’s nature, will be sufficient to arm him for the mission ahead, though we are not told how a knowledge of the Name, if it were unknown to the people, would validate Moses’ claim. But, in any case, upon his inquiry he is not given the clear answer he seeks; instead he is told that the Lord may, in addition to being and continuing to be YHVH, also be known as Ehyeh or Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. This revelation only deepens the mystery, for the new name is not further explained. Still, Moses makes no additional inquiry, and we may therefore assume that the name was meaningful to him, or at least that he believed he understood its import. What then was it? Over the centuries a number of answers have been attempted, though none has won universal acceptance.
Ehyeh is quite evidently the first person singular of the word “to be.” One problem is that the tense is not clear; it could mean “I am” or “I will be” (or “I shall be”). This uncertainty is multiplied in the name Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, for the first Ehyeh might be of one tense (for instance, “I am”) and the second another (for instance, “I will be”), or they might both be the same tense (“I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be”). To add to the difficulty, Asher could mean either “who” or “what.”
The majority of the commentators have understood both occurrences of Ehyeh to convey the future tense and to mean: “I will be what tomorrow demands,” that is, God emphasizes that He is capable of responding to human need. This was the message, they say, Moses was to take back to the enslaved people and thereby assure them that the God whom they called YHVH was also “Ehyeh,” who would be ready in the near future to redeem them. A variant interpretation was offered by S.R. Hirsch who saw a philosophical meaning in Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh: “I will be what I want to be,” that is, God stresses His own freedom to act as He wills, in contrast to earthly creatures who are never totally free. But is it likely that Moses could take such an opaque message to the people and satisfy their thirst for the knowledge that God was still their God?
It appears therefore that the impact of this story lies elsewhere. The most important factor to be taken into consideration is that, though Moses is given the new name to take back to Israel, not a single instance is reported in the Torah where he is shown to have actually used it. From this we can conclude that the revelation was never meant for the people at all, nor did Moses really inquire for the sake of the people: Moses had asked for himself, and the answer he receives is also meant for him — for God understands what Moses wants, and the very vagueness of His answer is purposeful. When Moses asks, “What shall I say to them” he is asking to satisfy his own needs and does so by pretending to ask for the sake of others. This view alone makes it possible to arrive at a satisfactory interpretation of God’s mysterious self-revelation. Moses wants to know the nature of God by inquiring about the inner meaning of His name, but God will not be fully known and therefore evades a clear answer. His response is intentionally vague, for it is a response to Moses only, and not a name suitable for communication. “You ask to know My name,” God says, “and I will tell you: I am what I am, I will be what I will be. And when you tell your people of this experience, tell them it is the same YHVH they know about.” God reveals Himself to Moses as He does to no other human being (Deut. 34:10), but even to Moses He shows himself wrapped in mystery. It is an aspect of God’s freedom to conceal his essence, and hence Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh must remain elusive. Therefore it is well to keep the divine response in its original form and, as our English translation does, convey it, untranslated and inexplicable, as Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. The Midrash conveys a similar interpretation: while God is called by many names, He is what he is by virtue of His deeds. That is to say, you cannot really know Him until you experience Him in your own life. (pp. 404-406)

The Gospel: Intimations of suffering and glory

The Gospel passage follows on from last week’s confession of faith by Peter, located by Mark in Caesarea Philippi in the far north of the Jordan catchment area. Matthew has drawn together material from Mark:

Predictions of death and resurrection

Matt 16:21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Matthew has adopted, with minimal adjustment, the series of three prophecies in which Jesus predicts his own demise in Jerusalem as well as his resurrection. The series of predictions can be found at:

  • Mark 8:31-33 = Matt 16:21-23 = Luke 9:22
  • Mark 9:30-32= Matt 17:22-23 = Luke 9:43b-45
  • Mark 10:32-34 = Matt 20:17-19 = Luke 18:31-34

Robert Fortna [The Gospel of Matthew, 145f] observes:

I believe it is most unlikely that Jesus foresaw this early his eventual arrest and execution, still less his resurrection, or that he solemnly predicted them to this disciples. Rather, the three episdoes were introduced later in the story, perhaps not until the writing of Mark, to justify Jesus’ fate: If he had predicted it, it was acceptable, much as the Old Testament prophecy made an event inevitable (see … 27:27-66).

The way of the cross

At the heart of this week’s Gospel is the theme of the cross: a fate embraced by Jesus (as the gospel writers tell the story) and the benchmark for Christian discipleship.

We have an ancient Greek reference crucifixion as the test of integrity [cited in Crossan, Historical Jesus (353)]:

If you want to be crucified, just wait.
The cross will come.
If it seems reasonable to comply, and the circumstances are right,
then it’s to be carried through, and your integrity maintained.
(Epictetus, Discourses 2.2.20; Oldfather, 1.228-231)

Lachs [Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament, 187] notes that there are no rabbinic parallels to this saying but that there are many rabbinic passages that share the idea that the faithful should be willing to face martyrdom for their beliefs, for instance:

The words of the Law are only established in a man who would die for them. [B.Ber. 63b]

John Dominic Crossan, [Historical Jesus 353] observes:

The complex Carrying Ones Cross [1/3] could be dismissed almost immediately as a retrojection of Jesus’ death back onto his own prophetic lips. This would be especially persuasive if it were found only in Mark 8:34, but it is found in both Gospel of Thomas 55:2b and the Sayings Gospel Q at Luke 14:27 = Matthew 10:38, neither of which show any great interest in the historical crucifixion of Jesus.

After citing the passage from Epictetus (see above), Crossan continues:

There is, therefore, no need to take Jesus’ saying as either retrojected or projected prophecy. Jesus “was discussing,” as Leif Vaage put it about Epictetus, “the (possible) consequences of following a certain philosophy … The cost of adopting a particular way of life is … graphically imagined … The fate portrayed … certainly seems a conceivable outcome of the kind of social challenge and outrageous behavior” (1989:173) seen so often throughout this chapter.

Note: The Vaage reference is to “Q1 and the Historical Jesus: Some Peculiar Sayings (7:33-34; 9:57-58,59-60; 14:26-27)” Forum 5/2, 1989, 159-76.

Unlike its co-chair, the Jesus Seminar was more sceptical of this saying’s authenticity. This saying is deeply embedded in the early traditions appearing in three independent sources and in two different forms: as a negative saying in Q/Thom and as a positive saying in Mark. In the end, and only after a second consideration of the question, the Fellows rejected the saying from the database of authentic Jesus sayings on the grounds that its post-Easter understanding of the cross as the defining symbol for Jesus.

Gerd Lüdemann [Jesus, 57], agrees with the final view of the Jesus Seminar and considers Mark 8:34b “a saying of post-Easter prophet.”

John P. Meier [Marginal Jew, III, 64-66], discusses this saying as part of his treatment of the disciples. He considers that the “shocking imagery” and the multiple attestation both support the case that Jesus created this saying. Meier suggests that the saying would not have spoken of carrying one’s own cross (rather than Jesus’ cross) had it been a post-Easter creation, and he also cites the parallel from Epictetus (c. 55-135 CE) in support of a wide dissemination of the crucifixion metaphor in the early Roman period.

Some standing here

Matt 16:27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Belief in Jesus’ return (parousia) is one of the most strongly attested items in the historical Jesus tradition, and continues to be a core belief in some modern Christian communities. In every generation there have been Christians who expected to see the end of the world before they died, but in the Synoptic tradition such a statement perhaps indicates this saying is circulating within the range of living memory deriving from the late 20s of the first century; not later than 90 CE or thereabouts.

Jesus Database

  • 240 Passion Resurrection Prophecy – (1a) Mark 8:31-33 = Matt 16:2l-23 = Luke 9:22; (1b) Mark 9:9b = Matt 17:9b; (1c) Mark 9:12b = Matt 17:12b; (1d) Mark 9:30-32= Matt 17:22-23 = Luke 9:43b-45; (1e) Luke 17:25; (1f) Mark 10:32-34 = Matt 20:17-19 = Luke 18:31-34; (1g) Matt 26:1-2; (1h) Mark 14:21 = Matt 26:24 = Luke 22:22; (1i) Mark 14:41= Matt 26:45b; (1j) Luke 24:7.
  • 044 Carrying Ones Cross – (1) GThom. 55:2b; (2) 1Q: Luke 14:27 = Matt 10:38; (3) Mark 8:34 = Matt 16:24 = Luke 9:23.
  • 063 Saving Ones Life – (1) 1Q: Luke 17:33 = Matt 10:39; (2) Mark 8:35 = Matt 16:25 = Luke 9:24; (3) John 12:25-26.
  • 241 What Profit – (1a) Mark 8:36 = Matt 16:26a = Luke 9:25; (1b) 2 Clem. 6:2.
  • 028 Before the Angels – (1a) 2Q: Luke 12:8-9 = Matt 10:32-33; (1b) 2 Clem. 3:2 [from Matt 10:32]; (2) Mark 8:38 = Matt 16:27 = Luke 9:26; (3) Rev 3:5; (4) 2 Tim 2:12b.

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

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Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (24 August 2014)



  • Exodus 1:8-2:10 & Psalm 124 (or, Isaiah 51:1-6 & Psalm 138)
  • Romans 12:1-8
  • Matthew 16:13-20

First Reading: The birth of a saviour, Moses

While the sacred traditions of ancient Israel and Judah celebrate Abraham and Jacob as the ancestors of the nation, or even David as the archetypal dynastic founder, it is Moses who is honoured with a classic birth story as befits the founder of a new religious tradition.

For an introduction to some of the ancient birth stories now known to us, and as an aid to reflection on the significance of the Moses story, the following pages are especially relevant:

Gospel: Who is Jesus

This week’s Gospel passage is one of the classic scenes in the Synoptic Gospels.

Jesus travels to the far north of the Holy Land, to the area around Caesarea Philippi. This was a city created by Philip, a son of Herod the Great, who had was given authority over a portion of his father’s kingdom by Augustus, emperor of Rome. Best known as Philip the Tetrarch, this “Herod” appears in the NT record and this extract from the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (vol. 5, p. 311) outlines what we know of him:

Philip is known primarily as a builder. He refounded the city of Panias and named it Caesarea—the Caesarea Philippi (literally, “Philip’s Caesarea”) of the New Testament (Matt 16:13; Mark 5:27). He also refounded the town of Bethsaida: he supplemented its population, strengthened its fortifications, and named it Julias after Julia, Augustus’ daughter. The refoundation will therefore have taken place early, presumably before Julia’s exile in 2 B.C. (Ant 18.27–8). The foundation and refoundation of cities named after the emperor and his family was characteristic of client rulers under the Principate (Suet. Aug. 60 with Braund 1984: 107–11). Such cities tended to be centers of imperial cult: Herod the Great had already built a splendid temple near Panias for Augustus (Ant 15.363–64; JW 1.404–6). Philip’s subjects were predominantly non-Jewish. Thus Philip’s coinage bears images, most notably the heads of Augustus and Tiberius respectively. They also depict a temple, probably the temple which Herod had built near Panias. These coins indicate that Philip called himself simply “Philip, tetrarch” (HJP2 1: 340 n. 9).
Philip reigned as tetrarch from 4 B.C. until his death in A.D. 33/4. According to Josephus, he was a good ruler. His reign was mild and he avoided external entanglements. He traveled about his territories with only a small, select entourage, which would not be a burden upon his subjects. He dispensed justice promptly and fairly from a throne which he took with him in his travels around his tetrarchy. He died at Julias, where, after a costly funeral, his body was consigned to a tomb which he had built in preparation for his death (Ant 18.106–8).
Philip had married Salome, daughter of Antipas and Herodias, whose dancing had cost the head of John the Baptist (Mark 6:22) and who survived Philip to marry again (Ant 18.137). But Philip had no children: Tiberius annexed his territories upon his death (Ant 18.108).

For a more detailed discussion of the coins issued by the successors of Herod, including Philip, see:

The imperial politics in which Herod and his sons were immersed clearly impacted on Jesus in various ways, and not least in his crucifixion. While the reference to John the Baptist may strike the modern reader as a religious reference, in the ancient world it was perhaps a more directly political note.

Within that world, and within the confused network of competing claims to authority and loyalty, Mark tells a story of Jesus travelling to a region closely associated with both the Herodian succession and the continuation of that dynasty before, during and after the great war with Rome in 66-73 CE. Caesarea Philippi was the seat of government for Agrippa II, who sided with Rome at the time of the Jewish rebellion and was later a confidant of Flavius Josephus, on whose writings we rely for much of our knowledge of Jewish history at this time.

Whether Jesus actually was in the region of Caesarea Philippi during the reign of Philip the Tetrarch, or whether Mark is creating that location because of its significance as the centre of Jewish authority after 70 CE, this scene is of great significance in Mark’s narrative. Indeed, given Mark’s own understanding of Jesus as “son of God” (cf. 1:1; 1:11; 3:11; 15:39), the answers he puts on the lips of the disciples are quite restrained:

  • John the Baptist
  • Elijah
  • one of the prophets
  • the Messiah

These issues are teased out in a longer discussion in Gregory C. Jenks, Jesus Then and Jesus Now: Looking for Jesus, Finding Ourselves (Melbourne: Morning Star, 2014). See, “One of the prophets” ch 4 (pp. 45–57).

While “Messiah” is clearly the answer Mark wants the readers to embrace, this is a term that has not appeared in his Gospel until now (except for the opening line of the narrative, best understood as a superscription or title for the work as a whole:

  • “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1)

However, after this point the Greek word christos (anointed, messiah, Christ) is found a number of times:

  • “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” (Mark 9:41)
  • “While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David?'” (Mark 12:35)
  • “And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘Look! There he is!’—do not believe it.” (Mark 13:21)
  • “But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?'” (Mark 14:61)
  • “‘Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.” (Mark 15:32)

It is possible that Mark is deliberately restrained with his narrative here. While “son of God”—with all its political overtones in an empire whose rulers claimed to be sons of the divine ruler who had preceded them, and in which local rulers dedicated temples such as we find at Bethsaida and Caesarea Philippi to the imperial cult—was important for his view of Jesus, he chooses to speak of Jesus in traditional Jewish terms, as the anointed one, the messiah.

Matthew will change Mark’s narrative to make Peter profess the faith held by Matthew’s early Christian community:

  • “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God …” (Matt 16:16)

And Luke will also assert the special relationship between this Messiah and Israel’s God:

  • “the Messiah of God”

Almost 2,000 years later we still find ourselves reflecting on the question: Who is Jesus? We may answer it differently from earlier generations, but the question persists and the way we answer it shapes the way we live.

Jesus Database

  • 073 Who is Jesus – (1) GThom. 13; (2a) Mark 8:27-30 = Matt 16:13-20 = Luke 9:18-21; (2b) GNaz. 14; (2c) John 6:67-69.

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

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Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (17 August 2014)



  • Genesis 45:1-15 & Psalm 133 [or, Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 & Psalm 67]
  • Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
  • Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28


Gospel: Distant Girl Cured

The story of Jesus engaging with a Canaanite woman who was the mother of a sick daughter is known to us from Mark and Matthew. Interestingly, Luke has chosen not to use this story even though he must have been aware of it. It survives only in Mark and Matthew.

The basic stories are as follows:

(1) Mark 7:24-30
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

= Matt 15:21-23,25-28
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.


Horizontal Line Synopsis

When placed in a horizontal parallel format, the close literary relationships between the original in Mark and the duplicate in Matthew are very clear:

Mark 7:24-30 || Matt 15:21-23,25-28


John P. Meier

Meier deals with this miracle in A Marginal Jew II,659-61. On this particular story he concludes:

Weighing all the pros and cons, it seems to me that the story of the Syrophoenician woman is so shot through with Christian missionary theology and concerns that creation by first-generation Christians is the more likely conclusion. (p. 660f)

After this negative conclusion (the equivalent of a Black vote in Jesus Seminar terms), Meier outlines his considered judgment on the seven exorcisms attributed to Jesus in the NT tradition:

If, however, one is pressed to judge whether some historical core lies behind the stories of exorcism in the the narrative sections of the Gospel, the following positions, are, in my view, the most likely: (1) The story of the possessed boy and the brief reference to Mary Magdalene’s exorcism probably go back to historical events in Jesus’ ministry. I tend to think the same is true of the story of the Gerasene demoniac, though in this case the arguments are less probative. (2) In its present form, the exorcism of the demoniac in the Capernaum synagogue may be a Christian creation, but it probably represents “the sort of thing” Jesus did during his ministry in Capernaum. (3) The brief story of the exorcism of a mute (and blind?) demoniac in the Q tradition (Matt 12:24 || Luke 11:14-15) is difficult to judge. It could go back to some historical incident, or it could be a literary creation used to introduce the Beelzebul controversy. (4) In contrast, it seems very likely that the story of the mute demoniac in Matt 9:32-33 is a redactional creation of Matthew to fill out his schema of three groups of three miracle stories in chaps. 8-9 of his Gospel. (5) The story of the Syrophoenician woman is probably a Christian creation to exemplify the missionary theology of the early church. (p. 661)

Jesus Seminar

In the opinion of the Seminar, there probably was a historical core to Mark’s story. (57% of Fellows voted Red or Pink).

A Greek woman regarded Jesus as an exorcist.
Jesus had a conversation with that woman .
Their conversation involved an exchange of witticisms in which the woman got the better of Jesus.

Jesus visited the region of Tyre in southern Lebanon.
Jesus viewed foreigners as “dogs.”
Jesus said: “It isn’t good to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs.”
Jesus said: “Let the children be fed first.”
A demon left the girl because of her mother’s wit.
A demon left the girl because her mother trusted Jesus.


John Dominic Crossan

In Historical Jesus (1991:328), Crossan suggests that this story is the product of Christian imagination rather than Christian memory:

119 Distant Boy Cured [1/2] and 237 Distant Girl Cured [2/1] are the only two miracles that Jesus performed for Gentiles and performed at a distance. And, although this is not unique to those cases, they are performed for a child rather than the child’s parent. It is hard not to consider those twin miracles, requested by a father for his son and a mother for her daughter, as programmatic defenses of the later Gentile mission, as Jesus’ proleptic initiation of that process. It is quite likely, it seems to me, that those cases are not at all a movement from event to process but actually from process to event. Early Christian communities symbolically retrojected their own activities back into the life of Jesus.


Elaine Wainwright

In the opinions cited so far, we have observed the historical assessments made by (predominantly) male scholars. However, it will not be surprising to note that feminist scholars tend to focus on the characterization of the Canaanite woman, and to put the largely negative historical judgments to one side.

One such scholar is Elaine Wainwright. In her 2001 Ideas at the Powerhouse lecture, Elaine Wainwright connects the story of the woman she calls “Justa” with the story of an Australian Aboriginal woman, Nan:

Nan’s storied experience evokes a similar story for me in the Christian tradition enabling these stories to rub up against one another. It is the story of the Canaanite woman [named Justa in the later tradition] who seeks healing from Jesus for her daughter. As her story is told in the Matthean gospel, the Jesus of the story places a number of obstacles before her, finally citing the proverbial saying—its not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs [Matt 15:25] [words similar to those which Nan must have heard to have brought her to feel like a "beast of the field"]. As outsider to the resources the Matthean Jesus claimed only for Israel in this story, Justa, the Canaanite, appropriates to herself the status of ‘dog’ as Nan had appropriated the treatment from white Australia which had make her feel like a ‘beast’. As if shocked by Justa’s consequent appropriation, the Matthean Jesus sets aside the obstacles he has constructed and heals her daughter. While we hear Nan’s own voice through her granddaughter Sally, Justa’s voice is constructed by the Matthean storyteller who sets her story in the context of the ancient Canaanite/Israelite struggle. Jesus whose birth and life story generally placed him among the colonised of the Roman empire, preaching a message that was counter-Imperial, is placed in this story in the role of the coloniser. He stands with and for ancient Israel as this story evokes that of another conquest of land, namely ancient Israel’s violent appropriation of the land of the Canaanites on the grounds of its being promised as divine gift. This is a story which has been used to support many land grabs especially among Christians informed not only by the stories of ancient Israel but by a story such as the encounter between Jesus and Justa. And yes, it is not surprising to learn that it has been used in white European appropriation of indigenous Australian lands.
Attentiveness to present Australian experience and a telling of our stories has brought with it a critically attentive reading of a traditional religious story which has functioned in the past and still functions in the meaning-making process among many Australians. Just as our spirit and imagination is touched by Nan and her indigenous sisters and brothers, so too is it touched by Justa, the feisty Canaanite and all her Canaanite ancestors whose names we do not know. Both stories take our spirit beyond self-absorption to an awareness of, an encounter with the experience of the other as Clendinnen suggests, enabling us to allow space for the sacredness of the story of the other. And as these two stories intersect, the Jesus of this new story-telling, this shaping of a new spiritual imagination emerges not in doctrinal or dogmatic formulae but engaged in the process of recognizing his own complicity in colonialism even while steeped in a broader life vision of seeking to eradicate it. We are always unlearning and learning on this path toward transformation and stories which remind us of this aspect of the journeying can sustain our spirits along the way. Justa, the fiery Canaanite who is being re-membered in diverse contexts from Musa Dube’s native Botswana to our ideas fest here at the Powerhouse; Nan, the dying indigenous Australian grandmother; and Jesus, the first-century Jew who stands between coloniser and colonised accompany us through our re-membering, our re-telling of their stories.

In an earlier piece — originally written for Reading from This Place. 2: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation Internationally (Fortress, 1995) but later republished in Songlines 5(1996) — Elaine Wainwright creates a new narrative that imagines how the story of Justa may have functioned in the second- and third-generation Christian communities of Antioch. She sets the scene by inviting us to imagine a number of house churches scattered across the city, some with significant numbers of Aramaic-speaking Jewish disciples and others mostly Greek-speaking Gentiles. Leaders from these various house churches have met to assist in the gathering up of traditions that had particular significance among one or more of the groups. On this occasion they are re-membering the story of a woman who had asked Jesus to heal her daughter.

Miriam was the first to speak because this story was particularly significant in her house church. She told it as the story of Justa, the woman of Tyre whose granddaughter was now a member of their community. Justa had told and retold the story of her encounter with Jesus when he was in her region at a particular time when her young daughter had been ill for so long that many thought that she must have been demon possessed.
Justa was desperate and so she called out for help to this itinerant Jew who wandered into the area and who was being followed by such a close-knit group of women and men that he gave the appearance of being a holy one. How taken aback she was when she received this insulting rebuff: It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.
Justa’s need, however, was greater than any humiliation she could receive and so, led by some power even beyond her own consciousness, she quipped back: Ah. but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. She remembered her own fear at the realisation of what she had just said but also her experience of a new power which she had not known before, a power which would never again allow her to be put down in such a way.
She remembered also the look of astonishment, recognition and even shame that passed across the face of the Jewish holy man whom she later came to know as Jesus. He spontaneously held out his hand to her in welcome, drawing her up from her position of supplication, and he acclaimed her: Woman, great is your faith. Miriam acknowledged that their community had extended the saying of Jesus: Let it be done for you as you desire, so as to highlight Jesus’ recognition of what Justa had taught him; a recognition that linked her insight into wholeness with that of God whose way, whose dream, Jesus was to establish on earth.
At this point in Miriam’s storytelling, Johannan interrupted: You tell this story as if it were a story of Justa rather than Jesus. Our community is much more aware of the outrage that Jesus must have felt when confronted by this foreigner who was not only Syrophoenician — a veritable Canaanite according to our tradition — but also female. We have it on good authority from those who knew Jesus’ companions of that day, that Jesus at first ignored the woman. He was forever faithful to the traditions of his religion and he would not have spoken to such a woman in public. Indeed, his stance was even furthered by those companions who begged him to send her away.
Furthermore, in the story as we received it from our Hellenistic Jewish brothers and sisters in southern Syria, Jesus is reported as saying to the woman: I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This is a very different picture of Jesus than that presented by Miriam. Jesus may eventually have given the woman what she wanted because she was crying after them as the disciples suggested, but the story still preserves the integrity of his mission to Israel rather than to the Gentiles, and our God-given gender distinctions.
It was now Justinian’s turn to intervene: Johannan, we have had this conversation many times before, I know, but Jesus’ own vision of his ministry was more universal than you say. This is one of our key stories which illustrates the movement within Jesus during his lifetime enabling him to see his mission as one including us.
This woman, whom we don’t name and I am happy to learn her name, this woman Justa, is indeed for us the foremother of the mission which includes us as Gentiles. Just as she won healing and wholeness for her daughter, so too she won it for us, her daughters and sons today. While she does not have a name in our story, she does, however, have a voice. She addresses Jesus as ‘Kyrios’ and as ‘Son of David’ and she cries out in the language of prayer and liturgy: ‘have mercy on me’ and ‘help me.’
Indeed, for us, her voice echoes the voice of the women of our community who participate in the liturgical life of the community and in our theological reflection. I hadn’t heard the conclusion to the story as Miriam has told it but I can tell you, Ruth and Matthias, it will be significant in our house community and we will add it to our telling of the story, so you would do well to include it also.


Alan Cadwallader

For a monograph length study of this passage, see Alan Cadwallader’s book, Beyond the Word of a Woman: Recovering the Bodies of the Syrophoenician Woman (ATF Press, 2008). The abstract reads as follows:

Ethology to the ancients was the study of character; to the moderns it is the study of human beings through the behavioural patterns of animals. These studies in fact have a common genealogy with classical writers convinced that the dimorphism of gender was naturally ordered with all its consequent inequalities in strength, virtue and above all in the location of reason. In the encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician women in the Gospel of Mark this ethology dominates the story. Women are described as dogs. This highly original work utilises the common emphases of ancient and modern ethology to unlock new dimensions of the story. It demonstrates that in the Syrophoenician critique of Jesus, delivered by a woman and her daughter, exalted reason must yield its monopoly to the equally privileged life of the body. The author is a New Testament Biblical Scholar at Australian Cathollic Univeristy in Canberra, Australia. The book won the Lynlea Rodger Australasian Theological Book Prize in 2009 for the best Theological Book written in 2008/2009.

For an earlier work by Cadwallader in which his developing ideas about this passage are presented, see his 2005 essay “When a Woman is a Dog: Ancient and Modern Ethology meet the Syrophonecian Women” in The Bible and Critical Theory 1,4 (2005).

Cadwallader offers this summary of the impact of Matthew’s retelling of Mark’s story has had upon the subsequent reception and interpretation of the story, and identifies three new perspectives for approaching this story:

Up until relatively recently, Mark’s story has been overwhelmed by its dependent off-spring born(e) in a didactic, diasporan matrix (Mt 15:21–28). The faith of a humble, gentile woman has characterised the reading of both pericopes. Such a (mis-) reading of Mark has a remarkable tenacity—Gerd Lüdemann, for example, has claimed that, although the woman’s faith is not mentioned explicitly, ‘as a phenomenon it is present in the story’. The retrieval of the blatant affirmation of the word of a woman (Mk 7:29) has brought considerable reassessment of the significance of the story. This ‘word of a woman’ has become prized in a socio-political climate of the recovery of distinctive and critical women’s voices in contemporary church and society (especially in the West). However, even as this ‘word of a woman’ is still yielding a rich fecundity for the life of church and of those exploring other communal expressions of faith, I name three concerns (at least) for further reflection:
i) the problematisation of the accent upon word by the rehabilitation of corporeality as a positive, contributing presence.
ii) the significance of the application of animal epithets in an encounter involving a woman.
iii) the neglect of the daughter’s role in/for the story. (Beyond the Word of a Woman, xxxiv)


Jesus Database


Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:


Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

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Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (10 August 2014)



  • Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 & Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b [or, 1 Kings 19:9-18 & Psalm 85:8-13]
  • Romans 10:5-15
  • Matthew 14:22-33


Jesus and the stormy sea

The story of Jesus exercising divine powers over the sea – whether by claiming a storm brewing over its waves, or by walking across the surface of the water – is especially problematic for modern readers. Unlike a healing miracle – or even an exorcism – such a “nature miracle” seems to lack any moral purpose as no one’s suffering is alleviated. Rather, the point of the story seems to be a demonstration of Jesus’ divine powers over an aspect of nature that the ancient story-teller found especially frightening.

Ancient near eastern traditions

The ancient peoples from the biblical lands and nearby regions had a deep fear of the sea. Their stories of creation often involved a conflict between the gods that resulted in the slaying of the sea-monster as a prerequisite for human existence. This example comes from the Babylonian Creation myths

In the beginning, neither heaven nor earth had names. Apsu, the god of fresh waters, and Tiamat, the goddess of the salt oceans, and Mummu, the god of the mist that rises from both of them, were still mingled as one. There were no mountains, there was no pasture land, and not even a reed-marsh could be found to break the surface of the waters.
It was then that Apsu and Tiamat parented two gods, and then two more who outgrew the first pair. These further parented gods, until Ea, who was the god of rivers and was Tiamat and Apsu’s great-grandson, was born. Ea was the cleverest of the gods, and with his magic Ea became the most powerful of the gods, ruling even his forebears.
Apsu and Tiamat’s descendents became an unruly crowd. Eventually Apsu, in his frustration and inability to sleep with the clamor, went to Tiamat, and he proposed to her that he slay their noisy offspring. Tiamat was furious at his suggestion to kill their clan, but after leaving her Apsu resolved to proceed with his murderous plan. When the young gods heard of his plot against them, they were silent and fearful, but soon Ea was hatching a scheme. He cast a spell on Apsu, pulled Apsu’s crown from his head, and slew him. Ea then built his palace on Apsu’s waters, and it was there that, with the goddess Damkina, he fathered Marduk, the four-eared, four-eyed giant who was god of the rains and storms.
The other gods, however, went to Tiamat and complained of how Ea had slain her husband. Aroused, she collected an army of dragons and monsters, and at its head she placed the god Kingu, whom she gave magical powers as well. Even Ea was at a loss how to combat such a host, until he finally called on his son Marduk. Marduk gladly agreed to take on his father’s battle, on the condition that he, Marduk, would rule the gods after achieving this victory. The other gods agreed, and at a banquet they gave him his royal robes and scepter.
Marduk armed himself with a bow and arrows, a club, and lightning, and he went in search of Tiamat’s monstrous army. Rolling his thunder and storms in front him, he attacked, and Kingu’s battle plan soon disintegrated. Tiamat was left alone to fight Marduk, and she howled as they closed for battle. They struggled as Marduk caught her in his nets. When she opened her mouth to devour him, he filled it with the evil wind that served him. She could not close her mouth with his gale blasting in it, and he shot an arrow down her throat. It split her heart, and she was slain. After subduing the rest of her host, he took his club and split Tiamat’s water-laden body in half like a clam shell. Half he put in the sky and made the heavens, and he posted guards there to make sure that Tiamat’s salt waters could not escape. Across the heavens he made stations in the stars for the gods, and he made the moon and set it forth on its schedule across the heavens. From the other half of Tiamat’s body he made the land, which he placed over Apsu’s fresh waters, which now arise in wells and springs. From her eyes he made flow the Tigris and Euphrates. Across this land he made the grains and herbs, the pastures and fields, the rains and the seeds, the cows and ewes, and the forests and the orchards.
Marduk set the vanquished gods who had supported Tiamat to a variety of tasks, including work in the fields and canals. Soon they complained of their work, however, and they rebeled by burning their spades and baskets. Marduk saw a solution to their labors, though, and proposed it to Ea. He had Kingu, Timat’s general, brought forward from the ranks of the defeated gods, and Kingu was slain. With Kingu’s blood, with clay from the earth, and with spittle from the other gods, Ea and the birth-goddess Nintu created humans. On them Ea imposed the labor previously assigned to the gods. Thus the humans were set to maintain the canals and boundary ditches, to hoe and to carry, to irrigate the land and to raise crops, to raise animals and fill the granaries, and to worship the gods at their regular festivals.


The cosmic waters in the Bible

There are echoes of this in the Bible, both in the creation hymn of Genesis 1 and in the scattered references to Leviathan, the Serpent and the Dragon.

Genesis 1:1-13

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
6 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
9 And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

Job 3:8

Let those curse it who curse the Sea,
those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan.

Job 41:12

Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook,
or press down its tongue with a cord?

Psalm 74:14

You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.

Psalm 104:26

There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

Isaiah 27:1

On that day the Lord
with his cruel and great and strong sword
will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent,
Leviathan the twisting serpent,
and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.

Even the classic account of the crossing of the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds?) can be understood as a variant of the ancient myth of the slaying of the sea-monster. Moses divides (slays) the Sea and the people walk across on dry land.

Exodus 15

6Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power–
your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy.
7In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries;
you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble.
8At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up,
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.
9The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.’
10You blew with your wind, the sea covered them;
they sank like lead in the mighty waters.

In some Jewish traditions these monsters will be served up as food for the faithful in the great messianic banquet at the end of time:

2 Esdras 6:49, 51

Then you kept in existence two living creatures; the one you called Behemoth and the name of the other Leviathan.
…but to Leviathan you gave the seventh part, the watery part; and you have kept them to be eaten by whom you wish, and when you wish.

The many variants of this ancient mythic theme include the legend of St George (who slays the dragon) and the archetypal Antichrist Myth in which a victorious Christ figure rides upon a white horse to slay the ancient dragon:

Revelation 19:11-16

Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself.13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.14 And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses.15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”

This image is of a modern reproduction of an ancient Byzantine icon, and shows St George mounted on his white horse as he slays the dragon. This image is found in churches and monasteries throughout the Middle East, and sometimes in the exterior decoration of Christian homes.

Power over the Sea

We find that the theme of special powers over the sea occurs in diverse religious traditions beyond the biblical texts:

Homer, Odyssey

Homer describes Hermes’ ability to move across the surface of the sea:

Right away he strapped onto his feet
his beautiful sandals, immortal and golden,
which were able to bear him quickly
over the waters of the sea
and over the limitless land
like the blasts of the wind.

Thus did Hermes ride on the myriad waves.
Odyssey 5.44-46,54


The Buddha and his disciples

Miracles stories involving the capacity to walk across water are also found in Buddhism:

The Buddha told this story at Jetavana Monastery about a pious lay follower. One evening, when this faithful disciple came to the bank of the Aciravati River on his way to Jetavana to hear the Buddha, there was no boat at the landing stage. The ferrymen had pulled their boats onto the far shore and had gone themselves to hear the Buddha. The disciple’s mind was so full of delightful thoughts of the Buddha, however, that even though he walked into the river, his feet did not sink below the surface and he walked across the water as if he were on dry land. When, however, he noticed the waves on reaching the middle of the river, his ecstasy subsided and his feet began to sink. But as soon as he again focused his mind on the qualities of the Buddha, his feet rose and he was able to continue walking joyously over the water. When he arrived at Jetavana, he paid his respects to the Master and took a seat on one side.
“Good layman,” the Buddha said, addressing the disciple, “I hope you had no mishap on your way.”
“Venerable sir,” the disciple replied, “while coming here, I was so absorbed in thoughts of the Buddha that, when I came to the river, I was able to walk across it as though it were solid.” “My friend,” the Blessed One said, “you’re not the only one who has been protected in this way. In olden days pious laymen were shipwrecked in mid-ocean and saved themselves by remembering the virtues of the Buddha.”
SOURCE: Jataka Tales of the Buddha



This 3C pagan writer derides the Gospel accounts of Jesus possessing such powers:

Experts in the truth about those places [in Galilee] report that there is no sea there, except they do refer to a small river-fed lake at the foot of the mountain in Galilee near the city Tiberius, a lake easily traversed in small canoes in no more than two hours and insufficiently capricious for waves or storms. So Mark greatly exaggerates the truth when he ludicrously composes the fiction of a nine-hour journey and Jesus striding upon the water in the tenth to find his disciples sailing on the pond [Gk: lakko]. Then he calls it thalassa, not merely a sea but one beset by storms, dreadfully wild, and terrifyingly agitated by the heaving of the waves, so that from these details he could represent Christ as performing a great sign, naming calming a mighty and violent storm and rescuing his scarcely endangered disciples from the deep and open sea.
[Porphyry, Contra christianos frag. 55. Tr. by MacDonald and cited in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, 2000:57)


Sibylline Oracles

Crossan [Historical Jesus. 406] notes the following passage in the Christian section of the Sibylline Oracles:

With a word he makes the winds to cease, and calm the sea
While it rages walking on it with feet of peace and in faith.
And from five loaves and fish of the sea
He shall feed five thousand men in the desert,
And then taking all the fragments left over
He will fill twelve baskets for a hope of the people.
[SibOr 8:273-78 (OTP 1.424)]


Jesus walks on the sea

Given this cultural context, it is no surprise to find that the early Christians had stories about Jesus in which he demonstrated divine powers over the chaotic elements of the sea. What is perhaps surprising is that these stories are so restrained in their descriptions.
The Gospel of John has a fairly simple account of Jesus walking on the sea:

6:16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 6:17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 6:18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 6:19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 6:20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 6:21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

Mark 6:45-52 (followed by Matthew) seems to know a more developed form of this tradition:

6:45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 6:46 After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 6:47 When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 6:48 When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. 6:49 But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 6:50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 6:51 Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 6:52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

= Matt 14:22-27
14:22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 14:23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 14:24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 14:25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 14:26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 14:27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”


Jesus calms the storm

A related story tells of Jesus claming a sudden storm that had burst over the disciples’ boat as they were on the sea:

Mark 4:35-41

4:35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 4:36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 4:37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 4:38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 4:39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 4:40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 4:41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

= Matt 8:18,23-27
8:18 Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. … 8:23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 8:24 A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 8:25 And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” 8:26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. 8:27 They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

= Luke 8:22-25
8:22 One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out, 8:23 and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. 8:24 They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. 8:25 He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”


Peter sinks

Matthew alone has the story of Peter sinking when he sought to walk to Jesus across the surface of the sea:

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 14:29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 14:30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 14:31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 14:32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 14:33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” [Matt 14:28-33]

This may be related in some way to the tradition found in 190 Fishing for Humans:

  • (1a) Mark 1:16-20 = Matt 4:18-22
  • (1b) GEbi. 1b
  • (2) Luke 5:4-11
  • (3) John 21:1-8

Whatever we make of those possible links, it seems that Matthew has used the story as part of his treatment of Peter as a leader among the disciples.

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