Text Study on Matthew 9:18-35 (Part Four)

Within Judaism or Without?

I want to begin by recommending “The Two Testaments” podcast, hosted by Professors Rony Kozman and Will Kynes. Both are on the faculty of Samford University in the Department of Biblical and Religious Studies. The podcast offers resources on a number of Hebrew and Christian texts.

For our purposes, they offer a series on the Gospel of Matthew. You can hear from an excellent variety of scholars with deep expertise on the Matthean materials. I have listened to all the episodes of this series and have found the conversations stimulating and helpful. As you continue to work your way through the Matthean account this year, I think you will benefit from these podcasts as well. I access them on YouTube, but they are available in a variety of formats.

Photo by Haley Black on Pexels.com

I have also continued to pursue the work of Anders Runesson, Dean and Professor of New Testament at the University of Oslo. His articles on issues in Matthean studies show up on Google Scholar and other research engines. I find his work and perspectives deepening and challenging as we read the Matthean account together.

Runesson is engaged in the conversation about whether the Gospel of Matthew should be read as a text from within Judaism (intra muros) or from outside of Judaism (extra muros). Runesson argues, along with the current majority of scholars, that the Matthean account comes from within Judaism. But that argument requires a great deal of methodological, historical, and theological nuance. The Matthean account is a complicated text arising in a complicated time.

I would commend to you a brief YouTube video where Runesson outlines what it means to talk about a “Within Judaism” perspective. While these comments are part of a symposium on the Gospel of John as a “within Judaism” document, his comments can serve us well in our study and interpretation.

The video is under four minutes, and you can watch it here. I’ll also take some time summarize his talk and see where it impacts our current conversation. He makes four points.

1. If we are to be fair to an ancient text, we need to treat it as we would an archaeological dig. We need to examine and remove the most recent layers first and keep them in mind as we dig into deeper and earlier layers. As we know (but don’t always practice), we can’t be faithful to a text if we pretend that that there’s no distance between the here and now and the real world of the Matthean author and text.

2. When we ask whether a text such as the Matthean account was “within Judaism,” we can’t do that based on assumptions that fit with current Christianity. Nor can we assume that ancient Judaism is identical to or even consistent with contemporary Judaism. If we ask our questions based on contemporary Christianity or Judaism, Runesson argues, then the New Testament texts are neither Christian nor Jewish (my emphasis). Read that final statement with the caveat included. But take it seriously.

3. The New Testament texts fit very well into the Second Temple scene of the first century “where we find neither Christians nor rabbis.” One way to understand these texts is to study and understand the institutions in which these texts arose. That is, we can read the New Testament texts as evidence of how those institutions worked.

The institutions in question, Runesson says, are ancient synagogues. These synagogues are manifestations of ancient agreements and understandings. He says that it is nearly impossible to speak about ancient “Judaism” without considering these institutions, the synagogues. We dare not confuse these ancient institutions with their modern counterparts. More on this below.

4. It is not enough to limit our study of the text to their “inception history” (that is, how the texts came about). It is also necessary to study and know their “reception history” (that is, how we have used these texts down the years and the way those layers of usage shape our current interpretation).

Instead of reading the Matthean text along a Christian vs. Jewish binary, we need to allow the text to be what it is. As Runesson notes, in the first century following the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jesus movement was expressed in multiple “within Judaism” ways, of which the Matthean text is one example. In addition, there were expressions (still within Judaism) designed specifically for Gentile Jesus followers.

With those points in mind, I want to review briefly Runesson’s work on the institutions he mentions in #3. I would very much like to read his technical work, but as a poor, retired preacher, I can’t afford those academic tomes. That being said, we can access his 2014 article on synagogues in the Gospel of Matthew through Google Scholar. This is important both for interpreting especially Matthew 9:35 and then for our understanding of the apostolic commission in Matthew 10.

“And Jesus went about all the cities and the villages,” we read in Matthew 9:35, “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming The Good News of the Kingdom and healing all illnesses and all infirmities.” Runesson argues that these synagogues were public municipal institutions, “a religio-political city hall of sorts” (page 9). These were places where civic business was done by all in the village or city. And they were places where Torah was read, taught and debated on the Sabbath.

Runesson calls this “the public synagogue.” These are the locations mentioned in Matthew 9:35 and elsewhere. These are the places where Jesus taught, healed, and tossed out the demons. “In these public synagogues,” Runesson writes, “decisions were made regarding all things local; archives were kept there, judicial proceedings took place there, and since, in antiquity, people did not distinguish between the secular and the religious, the Torah was read and discussed publicly on Sabbaths” (page 10).

In addition, there were “association synagogues.” These were, Runesson suggests, analogous to the Greco-Roman collegia. They might focus around occupations, ethnic groups, educational activities, or religious commitments. These groups had their own practices and rules. They maintained membership standards and enforced those standards. Runesson suggests that the Qumran community could be seen as a closed associational synagogue. Other such Jewish associations were typically somewhat more open.

The real problem is that numerous words were used to describe these associational synagogues – including the words we would translate as “synagogue” and “church” (ekklesia). In the Matthean account, the word we translate as “synagogue” refers to the public synagogues. The word we translate as “church” refers (three times) to an associational synagogue. It is only a few centuries later that the words part company as Jewish and Christian labels.

In the Matthean account, Runesson argues, the public synagogues function as “eschatological battlefields.” Jesus enters these institutions and engages in debate over Torah interpretation and teaching. Runesson puts it thus:

“The Matthean Jesus and his disciples…are campaigning across the land in public institutions and elsewhere, clearly aiming at setting in motion a mass movement to save Israel, or, more precisely, to rescue ‘the lost sheep of the House of Israel,’ i.e., the people they perceived of as abused and abandoned by their leaders (Matt. 9:36)” (page 14).

That’s what happens in the public synagogues. And it is precisely what is reported in Matthew 9:35. Jesus is teaching in their synagogues. Jesus is proclaiming the Good News – the announcement that a new regime is launching. It is the Good of News of THE Kingdom. As Runesson notes, “it is impossible to ignore the political implications of this ‘kingdom talk’…” (page 14). Jesus is not talking about any other kingdom. Rather this is The One and Only Kingdom – the Kingdom of God.

Then we have the Matthean ekklesia, mentioned in Matthew 16 and 18. This is the associational synagogue of the Matthean Jesus followers. This institution, Runesson argues, “represents the model for what Jewish communal life should be as people prepare for the final judgment and the full realization of the kingdom that will follow” (page 15-16).

The Matthean Jesus followers gather to form and administer their communal life. They engage in practices distinctive to that way of life. And in the end, this association synagogue becomes the Matthean successor to the Jerusalem temple, hopelessly defiled by the faithless rulers who murder Jesus. “An important function of the ekklesia,” Runesson writes, “is to provide access to a ‘space’ where the divine may be approached once the temple has become defiled” (page 18).

Please read the article for a full description of this assertion. The Matthean association synagogue is the place where repentance and forgiveness, compassion and care, sustain a people who can be holy, pure, and “perfect” in the ways that really matter. They are the people who get what it means to desire mercy more than sacrifice. This is the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.

With all that in mind, Runesson argues that the Matthean account is a “within Judaism” text. In fact, he argues more strongly that it is a Jewish text. To call the account a “Christian” text is perhaps a misnomer. “A historical reading of Matthew’s Gospel should lead to, in my opinion,” Runesson writes, “designating this text as a first-century Jewish text, regardless of its later reception; after all, few would call the texts included in the Hebrew Bible ‘Christian’ despite the fact that they were appropriated by Christianity and made it into the Christian canon” (page 21).

The Matthean account makes sense in its original setting. It becomes harder to accommodate in later Christian settings. This is not a commentary on the status of the text in the Christian canon. It is, rather, a limit on the ways in which we Christians are allowed to read the text and read into the text. “We must resist, as historians,” Runesson concludes, “the temptation to colonize the past with our own perspectives which in the end can do little more than serve our own identity needs.”

Well, that sets a preacher back a bit, eh?

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