The Gospels, part 7: The Gospel of Matthew (3)
Why does Matthew "double" characters and donkeys...?
When we look closely at any of the Gospels, we have little choice but to ask questions about what the classical German biblical scholars referred to as the Sitz im Leben – the “life situation” or “life setting” – of the communities which produced and read them. At best, we can only conjecture about those settings based on the scant evidence we have. Recently, within academic circles focusing on New Testament studies, this approach has been called into question; perhaps, it has been argued, the Gospels and Acts are works of independent literary creation, not reflective of any community other than that of Greco-Roman literati. In other words, it’s not a given that any identifiable Christian community was responsible for the writing of these books. And the Gospels do, in fact, share themes and motifs common in other classical literature, especially in how they present “biography.” As we noted in a previous post, it was accepted practice to tell stories and shape narratives in such a way as to emphasize the “meaning” of a person’s life, usually presenting a revered subject, such as an emperor, as a model of virtues to be imitated (and, in some cases, examples of the opposite – think Suetonius). In the process, some of those stories were invented or embroidered. So it is that we have (as we noted in an earlier post) Origen more than once quite casually remarking, about a century after the writing of the last of the canonical Gospels, that the Evangelists fabricated some episodes in the Gospels to make the character and message of Jesus stand out more clearly. This would not be our modern idea of how to go about writing the biography of a significant person, but the Gospels weren’t written by modern persons. That said, however, we cannot say with any real plausibility that these books were written outside of Christian communities or that they do not reflect the “life settings” within those communities. There is just too much evidence to the contrary, both external to the texts and to be found in them as well. And in an age when even slaves were trained to read and write as their masters had need, it makes perfectly good sense that there would be competent, culturally aware writers within the Christian communities. We also know from the Epistles in the New Testament (and other early Christian literature) that these communities included persons who were well-to-do and, we can be sure, also schooled and conversant with the literature of the day. In short, then, we must take seriously the Sitz im Leben of Matthew as we ask that most stirring of mystifying questions: Why does the writer double so many characters and even, in one case, donkeys, where Mark and Luke mention just one person and one donkey?
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