Friday, August 6, 2010

Is The Gospel of Matthew Anti-Jewish?

The author of Matthew seems to be very anti-Jewish. But I don’t think that means it’s an anti-Semitic text. Since it was written by Christian Jews, that would mean it would be a text written against its own people. There are deeper elements at work. Unfortunately, it has had an anti-Semitic effect throughout history. So it's time to explore the nuances of this Gospel’s “anti-Jewish” meaning.

As is true of all writing, the Gospel of Matthew was composed in a particular context. Matthew was probably written about 80-90 CE. This would place the Gospel in history just 10-20 years after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Losing the temple would have been a tragic event. Jews understood the temple as the dwelling place of God (e.g. Psalm 26:8). Psalm 48 provides an image of the city of Jerusalem and the temple as a sign of God’s protection, love, and justice. This destruction would have been deeply traumatic on many levels. The city whose citadels show God as a “sure defense” had been ruined (Psalm 43:3). Matthew describes the location of the temple after its destruction by Titus and the Romans as a “desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place” (24:15).

Since Rome devastated the sacred city and compromised the holiness of the temple, the Jewish people needed an alternative spirituality. It was that need that uniquely positioned the Pharisees. They were a progressive, reform movement within Judaism that suggested that God could be worshiped in local synagogues. Unlike the priestly Sadducees who were part of “the establishment” of temple life, the rabbinic Pharisees were a separatist group that suggested people could gather around the Torah in synagogues. Suddenly, this fringe group provided the Jewish community just what it needed: a new theological understanding. As the Pharisees grew in influence, they began to shape Judaism according to their values. One of these values was the oral Torah, which was a way to bring the spirituality of the temple into everyday life. This understanding allowed Jewish families to have holiness in their own houses through home-based Torah and ritual observation. As the Pharisees began to reestablish Judaism, they developed the Yavneh Academy in 90 CE. Thus, the Gospel of Matthew would have been written at a time when the Pharisees were attempting to establish a new Judaism. Herein is the tension for Matthew, a different kind of Jew altogether.

The author of Matthew was a Christian Jew with yet a different vision of Judaism that s/he wanted to get established. Matthew’s community was a reform movement that was competing with the Pharisees’ reform movement. This was an intramural battle within Judaism. This battle got heated. The Pharisees wrote a "Prayer Against the Heretics" to oppose those who they considered apostates. Basically it was meant to chastise the Christian Jews. At the same time, the author of Matthew wrote his own version of a "Prayer Against the Heretics" by writing against the Pharasitic Jews. This intramural battle raged because the Pharisees were establishing a new understanding of the Torah in the form of the Oral Torah, as Matthew was trying to establish Jesus as the new understanding of Torah. The lines were drawn. Two different perspectives on Torah were at odds. Instead of appreciating the dignity of difference, Matthew wrote a polemical Gospel against the Jews, calling them “false prophets” (7:15), “lost sheep” (10:6), “wolves” (10:16), “chief priests” (21:23), etc. In the words of Duling: “It is clear that Matthew's objection to Pharisaic leadership is expressed chiefly in a clash over the right interpretation of the Torah and its proper observance. For Matthew, Jesus is the instructor, the teacher, but more: the very fulfillment of the Torah and its prophets. He is the new Moses. Indeed he is the new revelation” (335).

The following are examples of Matthew’s attack on “the Jews”: 5:17-20 (Jesus’ law is better), 21:28-22:14 (rejection of Jewish leaders), 23:1-36 (seven bitter woes to the Jewish leaders), 26:47-27:44 (Jewish leaders arrest and kill Jesus), etc. The nastiest words of this whole polemic are placed into the mouths of the Jews themselves: “His blood will be on our children” (Matthew 27:25). Here, Matthew lets Rome off easy and blames the Pharisaic Jews for the death of Jesus. Anti-Jewish? No. Venomous? Yes. It was obviously a brutal family feud.

The positive aspect of Matthew's polemic Gospel is that once it’s understood in its historical context, its rhetorical hatchet-work need not be repeated or taken authoritatively. We understand the history. We see the battle. We need not repeat either. The important message in this text for modern Christians is the challenge to not be so judgmental in our own lives. It's always easy to castigate people we disagree with. An example of this today would be the silly banter between Republicans and Democrats. We should know better. We don't have to repeat the mistakes of the author of Matthew. We can disagree, but we don't have to use all the nasty rhetoric. And we certainly don't need to take an intramural squabble and use it to continue awkwardness between Jews and Christians today. It's been 2,000 years. It's time to let it go!

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