Saturday, October 29, 2005

Matthew, Part I

I ended the last post with some questions about the Bible. Now I would like to begin to give some answers. As you read this post and the ones that follow, remember my claim that in order to justify eternal punishment for disbelief, there should be no cause for reasonable disbelief. I intend to demonstrate that there are in fact very good reasons to doubt the authenticity and authority of the Bible as a book of divine origins.

The Gospel of Matthew is where I would like to start. Perhaps later I will address some of the reasons that the authorship of this book and others is in doubt and what implications that has. For now, I want simply to look at features of the text itself.

Matthew is one of the synoptic gospels, along with Mark and Luke. They are called synoptic because they have a substantial amount of parallel content, often told using the same or very similar words. Most scholars believe that Mark was the first one written, and Matthew and Luke were based on Mark as well (possibly) on a now lost document termed "Q". Mark is the shortest of the three; the others add details that Mark lacks, including the story of Jesus' birth as well as details that follow Jesus' supposed resurrection.

Today I would like to examine some differences between Matthew and Mark. Although the harmony of the gospels is usually stressed by Christians, there are differences among the accounts, and I had long been a bit uncomfortable with how those differences mesh with the idea of divinely inspired, inerrant scripture. It is all well and good to say that the differences lie in the authors' humanity and imperfect recollections, but as soon as you open that door, how do you know which statements have divine authority and which ones are merely "close" because of the role of the fallible human authors. I think that is a real problem.

But the specific differences I will address here relate to the accounts of miracles that are present in both Matthew and Mark. If the accounts are entirely and perfectly true, these accounts should not be incompatible. If they are not completely compatible simply because of the influence of fallible human authorship, then I propose that the differences should be of a nature that reflects honest, "disinterested" failed recollection. But that is not what we will find.

Consider the Gadarene demoniac. Or was it demoniacs? Mark 5:1-20 says there was a single demoniac. Matthew 8:28-34 says there were two.

How about the raising of Jairus's daughter in Matthew 9:18-19, 23-26 and Mark 5:22-24, 35-43. In Mark's account, Jairus comes to Jesus and tells him that his daughter is at the point of death (but not dead yet). Later, while Jesus is on his way there, someone comes to tell him that the daughter has died and he shouldn't bother to come anymore. In Matthew's account, on the other hand, Jairus comes and says that his daughter has already died, but Jesus should come and he will be able to bring her back to life.

In Mark 6:45-52, Jesus walks on water. When Matthew tells the story, though, Jesus walking on water is not enough; Peter does it as well.

In Mark 9:14-29, Jesus helps a demon-possessed boy. The father describes how the demon causes convulsions and foaming at the mouth and a number of other symptoms that sound pretty much like some sort of epilepsy. When Jesus tells the demon to come out, the demon throws the boy and causes some convulsions, and the boy eventually becomes "like a corpse" and the father thinks he has died. Jesus takes him by the hand, though, and he gets up. In Matthew 17:14-18, though, when Jesus rebukes the demon, the demon came out and the boy was cured at once with no reported ill effects.

How about Bartimaeus, the blind man by the road in Jericho? Actually, only Mark names him as Bartimaeus. But then, in Mark, there is only one blind man. Matthew reports two blind men that were both healed at the same time.

Then there is the cursing of the fig tree in Mark 11:12-14 and 20 and in Matthew 21:18-19. Never mind the logic in cursing a fig tree that wasn't bearing fruit even though it wasn't the season for figs. (Why curse a fig tree at all?) In Mark's account, Jesus curses the tree and when they pass by the following day they see that the tree has withered. Apparently, that took too long for Matthew's taste, because in his version the tree withers immediately.

Now, those are not all of the miracles described by both Mark and Matthew, but all the other accounts are substantially in agreement. These are the only ones that appear to me to have incompatible differences. In every case, it is Matthew's account that is more miraculous. And Matthew was written later. The stories are growing over time. That is the fingerprint not of simple mis-recollection by Matthew (if he was even the author), but of legend. We will see this same kind of growth in the next two posts as we look at the fulfillment of messianic prophecies and the story of the death, burial and resurrection as reported by Matthew. Taken by themselves, the discrepancies in the miracle stories are troubling, but perhaps not fatal. When considered along with other problems with Matthew, serious doubts about the honesty of the author will need to be raised.

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