MATTHEW'S EDITORIAL FATIGUE

2-Sept-2015


As you can tell from an earlier post ("Matthew's Flaming Pants," August 6), I have a problem with the Gospel of Matthew, in that Matthew seems prone to the temptation to make the news of Jesus more dramatic and captivating, causing him to give an account that conflicts with all of the other gospels.

As a quick review, the issue I raised in that earlier post was Matthew's description of Easter morning, and the initial discovery that Jesus had risen from the dead and departed his tomb. While the other gospels (Mark, Luke, John) have Mary Magdalene, either alone (John) or accompanied by other women, go to the tomb Sunday morning and discover the stone sealing the tomb had been rolled away, with either Jesus himself (in John) or an angel or two on hand to tell her Jesus was no longer inside (and no longer dead), Matthew's version has an angel suddenly appearing with a great earthquake, and as Mary and the others watch, the angel rolls away the stone right in front of them, proclaiming that Jesus had arisen. Matthew then afterward goes on to recount the details of a conspiracy between the Jewish leaders and the tomb guards, a conspiracy that no one associated with Jesus could possibly have witnessed (so how did Matthew know about it?), to say that Jesus' body had simply been stolen while the guards slept -- Matthew recounts (and invents) the conspiracy to explain why the Jews, ever since the event, had been saying that such a theft had occurred.

When I wrote that post, I chose to leave out another peculiarity in Matthew's version of the story, a detail that has no opportunity to arise in the other gospels because they had told the story entirely differently: on reading Matthew's account as described above, it occurred to me to wonder exactly how Jesus had left the tomb without removing the stone that was sealing it closed. Note the sequence of events: the angel rolls away the stone as Mary and the other women watch, and at that point the angel tells them that Jesus was already gone. So Jesus had left before the tomb was opened.

Now, any Christian who is reading this (if that should ever happen) will probably have a ready explanation for the mystery, which is why I left it out before: another of the gospels (John) reports that, following his resurrection, Jesus had the ghost-like ability to walk through walls. John 20:19 -- "On the evening of that first day of the week [the day Jesus had arisen], when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!'" (Of course, he said some more things after that.) John is making it clear that Jesus, somehow, had entered a locked room. And John goes on to have Jesus repeat the exact same trick (showing up in a locked room) a week later.

It should be noted that the accounts of Jesus revealing himself to his disciples after his resurrection are all considerably different in the various gospels, and I could get into that as well, but I want to stay with Matthew for now, because all these differences in Matthew tell us something about the kind of writer he was, and bring into question, even more than the gospel inconsistencies themselves, the claim that God "guided the hand" of the writers of the Bible.

So, back to Matthew's version of the resurrection.

As I pointed out, Matthew's version required Jesus to walk through solid rock to get out of his tomb. I have observed that John's account of what happened later that same day seems to support the idea that Jesus, in his post-resurrection state, was capable of doing that.

But I don't think that is really what Matthew is telling us here. There is another possible explanation for the mystery of Jesus' departure of the tomb: that Matthew, in his attempt to make Mary's discovery of the resurrection more exciting, simply overlooked the fact that his version of Jesus' great disappearing act required such a ghostly ability. That is, Matthew punched up the moment of revealing by having an angel roll away the stone while Mary watched, rather than simply having her find that the stone had been rolled away before she got there (as the other three gospels unanimously have it), and, in creating that dramatic addition to the story, Matthew simply didn't stop to think, "But wait, then how did Jesus get out?"

If I'm going to claim that as an explanation, I'd better be ready to support it. I am, in a couple of different ways.

John, in his account of Jesus revealing himself to the disciples that evening, is clearly aware that he is saying something remarkable about Jesus. John makes a point of mentioning that the disciples were in a locked room when Jesus suddenly appeared among them, and then makes a point of it once more when it happened again the following week. Matthew, on the contrary, doesn't explore that aspect of Jesus' disappearance at all, so that I (and I don't think I'm alone) had read it several times before I suddenly thought, "Wait a minute." If Matthew had wanted us to marvel at Jesus' new walking-through-walls power, it really seems like he would have called our attention to it so we wouldn't miss it.

That, by itself, is a weak point. Matthew, it can be argued, may have thought we were all smart enough to figure out the implications of Jesus' disappearance from a sealed tomb without needing it explained to us. But I'm not convinced Matthew thought any such thing. The gospel authors were, in a sense, salesmen, trying to give us enough information so that we would be persuaded to buy their salvation story and become followers of Jesus. A salesman doesn't intentionally hide a selling point and assume the customer will figure it out.

If I'm trying to say that Matthew just got careless here, that rather than leaving it to us to figure out the implications of his story he, instead, hadn't even figured them out himself, it would help my case if there turned out to be other places where Matthew displayed that same inattention to detail and unawareness of the consequences of the changes he was making in other writers' versions of the stories he was recording.

As luck would have it, there is such a place. At least one. I may have missed others.

There is a broad consensus among Bible scholars that, among the gospels, Mark was written first (though it is traditionally not placed first in the New Testament), and that Matthew and Luke used Mark, and another (lost) document the scholars call "Q", as sources for their own gospels. (The history of the Gospel of John is a separate story.)

In his first chapter (verses 40-45), Mark tells of Jesus being stopped, during his travels, by a man with leprosy, who went down on his knees and begged Jesus to heal him. Jesus did so with a touch, and then sternly told the man, "See that you don't tell this to anyone"; he ordered the man simply to show himself to the priests so that he could be declared clean. (Jesus knew what would happen if the man did tell anyone who had healed him, and indeed, the man did go around telling everyone who would listen, causing Jesus afterward to be so besieged by crowds that he could hardly go anywhere.)

Matthew took that story from Mark and, as was his custom, embellished it a little. In his eighth chapter, verses 1-4, Matthew tells the body of the story in much the same way as Mark (leper stops Jesus, Jesus heals him, orders the man not to tell anyone), but Matthew leads into the story with: "When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him." The enthralled crowds are a continuation of Matthew's account of Jesus' itinerant teaching, where he dazzled and amazed everyone with the brilliance of his parables and examples that he used to explain to all who would listen how they ought to be living their lives. So those huge audiences of people hanging on every word of the new teacher and healer were already part of Jesus' travels before he ran into the leper.

Now, adding this new detail to the leper story, that a big crowd was accompanying Jesus, was useful to Matthew's narrative of Jesus: Matthew is so fixed on promoting Jesus as a popular attraction that he makes sure to envelop Jesus in a crowd at the outset of the leper story. But, as I am claiming about Matthew's story of Jesus' Great Tomb Escape, adding this bit to this scene with the leper is another case of Matthew making a change in a previously established gospel account and overlooking the consequences of the change to the flow of the story.

Because in adding an observing crowd to the interaction with the leper, which Matthew otherwise copied faithfully from Mark, Matthew caused the story to make no sense whatever. Matthew, like Mark, has Jesus tell the leper "See that you don't tell anyone" -- but now it's ridiculous that Jesus would say that to the man. A whole crowd of people had stood watching the entire thing! How much of a secret does Jesus think it can be?

This unfortunate tendency of Matthew to fiddle with an established story and fail to think through the results of his changes is not something that no one but me has noticed. It's well-known among Bible scholars. One such scholar, Mark Goodacre, even has a name for it: "editorial fatigue," which he uses to denote cases of a Bible writer starting to change a story and then failing to carry the change through. The fact that Matthew bollixed the leper story through "editorial fatigue" makes it far more acceptable to claim that he also did the same thing with the Jesus' Tomb story.

But at last I arrive at my point, my reason for mentioning any of this: It is true that any human writer may, on occasion, fall victim to editorial fatigue, but we are talking about the Bible here, which is supposed to have been written by God. In my book, The Book of Daniel: Testimony of An Atheist, I quoted Theopedia which said, on the subject of the Bible being the Divinely Inspired Word of God, "Inspiration establishes that the Bible is a divine product. In other words, Scripture is divinely inspired in that God actively worked through the process and had his hand in the outcome of what Scripture would say. Inspired Scripture is simply written revelation. 'Scripture is not only man's word, but also, and equally God's word, spoken through man's lips or written with man's pen' (J.I. Packer, The Origin of the Bible, p. 31)."

That summarizes the belief about the Bible's authenticity among Judeo-Christian faithful (who nevertheless disagree among themselves about exactly which writings qualify as "divinely inspired" and belong in the Bible -- not just Jews versus Christians, as there is disagreement even among different denominations of Christians): God guided the hands of the men who wrote down his word in the Bible.

But to believe that, to believe God essentially wrote the Bible himself through the hands of men, makes "editorial fatigue" impossible. How could Matthew turn a simple story into an illogical mess, if God was "guiding his hand"?

Yet he did.



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