Shelly Matthews, Furman University

Violence in Matthew: The Question of Text and Reality - Copyright 2001

Much has been written in the past 30 years about the relationship of text to reality, of the representation of events in written narratives and its relationship to events as they "really happened" in the past. The results of this study have been by and large negative. That is, historians involved in this post-structuralist conversation about the relationship of text to reality have come to quite modest conclusions about what can be known about "what really happened" based upon textual representation of these events.1

In our field of early Judaism and Christianity, this may be most readily seen in the shift in analysis of texts pertaining to women. From the 1980's to the 1990's a notable shift has occurred in how the representation of women in ancient texts are analyzed. For two examples among many, take the instances of the book of Judith and the Apocryphal Acts of Thecla. These texts were once celebrated as indications of women as agents in their own right, outside of the rule of husband or father, and defying patriarchal structures. That is, these texts were read, fairly straightforwardly, as transparently referential, providing a window onto resisting women in the ancient world. Of late, however, these texts have been read by many, not in terms of what they reflect about women's experience and agency, but as complexly coded and gendered narratives in which women "are used to think with." The texts of Judith and Thecla have received new and sobering assessments as representations of androcentric, and, in the case of Judith, even pornographic, fantasies about women, which shed little light on the question of "real" women and real women's power in the ancient world.2

A related historiographic issue, over which much ink has been spilled, is the question of ideology and historical reconstruction. It is now widely acknowledged that how we frame questions will affect what we find in our historical studies.3

It is from these two historiographic questions, 1) the question of how women are represented in texts and about what that may or may not mean about real women subjects in the world of antiquity; and 2) the question of how the ideologies of historians shape their emplotments of women in history, that I turn to the question of violence in the text of Matthew. I ask here, what is the relationship of the Matthean text's representation of violence to the reality of violence in the historical Matthean community. I also ask how the assumptions and commitments of Matthean scholars inform their reconstructions of Matthean history.

In Matthew, as in many books of the New Testament, the idea that Christ followers are persecuted is pervasive. Blessings are pronounced on those who are persecuted for righteousness sake in the Sermon on the Mount; the woes against the Pharisees in Matthew 23 culminate in predictions that they will "kill and crucify, flog in synagogues, and pursue from town to town;" the parable of the banquet in Mattthew 22 implies that servants of the king will be killed by those to whom they are sent. Especially notable for the way it serves to "normalize" the phenomenon of persecution is Matthew's adaptation of the Q mission discourse in chapter 10. By taking Mark's eschatological predictions of future beatings in synagogues, which for Mark are part of the "birth pangs" marking the end of the age, and working them into the mission discourse of Matthew 10, Matthew makes all missionaries potential targets of persecution. That is, while for Mark persecution is the extraordinary sign that the end is near; for Matthew persecution is the ordinary expectation, the routine, for anyone sent out into mission by Christ.

The pervasiveness of the accusation that Jews persecute, kill or intend to kill Christ believers in Matthew is matched by the evasiveness of the details--the charges, the motives, the causes, the specific agents of the persecution. The lack of so much of what a modern historian wishes for is succinctly acknowledge by Douglas Hare in his classic book on persecution in Matthew. He notes that Matthew avoids sociological explanations for persecution: "Only the theological cause, the obduracy of Israel is of interest to the author. Nor is the mystery of Israel's sin probed, whether in terms of dualistic categories or in terms of predestinarianism. Israel's sin is a fact of history which requires no explanation. It is the sufficient cause of the persecution For Matthew no other explanation is necessary."4

Hare notes the theological cause for the persecution--the obduracy of Israel. Ulrich Luz, among others, has noted the theological necessity of early Christian persecution. For Matthew, as for many authors of the New Testament, the suffering of Christians is a positive phenomenon in the sense that it is necessary to the shaping of Christian self-understanding. To be a Christ follower is to take up the practice of imitatio Christi. For example, this is how Ulrich Luz summarizes his commentary on the Persecution of the Disciples in Matthew 10:16-23:

The central point of the whole text is Matthew's conviction that proclaiming the kingdom, including following Jesus, of necessity involves suffering. For this reason the church's experiences in the mission to Israel that are expressed with the aid of Mark 13:9-13 are given a fundamental significance. Luther correctly translates the spirit of v. 22 (esesthe misoumenoi hypo panton), "And you must be hated by everybody." On this point there is a deep convergence between Matthew and Paul. The "apostolate" is "essentially--not merely fortuitously--. . .active suffering and . . . suffering activity. In vv. 24-25 Matthew will indicate the christological basis of this conviction; in vv. 26-39 he will develop it.5

Matthew notes, then that persecution is pervasive, and that it is essential to Christian formation. Furthermore, by his numerous references to Israel's persecution of the prophets, Matthew also shows that this suffering is predictable. After all, what else could one expect from this "stiffed-necked people," who have always reviled the true messengers of God? Here, of course, I refer to the literary topos of Israel's persecution of its prophets, a topos analysed carefully in Odil Steck's Israel und Das Gewaltsame Geschick der Propheten in 1967.6  This is the topos that is exemplified in passages such as Matthew 5:12, after the blessing upon the persecuted, "rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you;" in Matthew 23:34, "Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify. . .so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of the righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar;" and in the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22, in which the invitees seize and kill the servants of the king.

In order to recognize how closely Matthew's stories of persecution conform to this literary topos, consider briefly the parable of the wedding banquet and its analog in Josephus' Antiquities. Matthews' parable of the wedding banquet differs from the Lukan version by the following addition: After the king's invitation to the marriage feast is declined, Matthew notes that some of the invitees "seize the kings servants, treat them shamefully and kill them" (Mat. 22:6). With the addition of this sentence, Matthew's story conforms to the Josephan account of Hezekiah's purification of the temple. Josephus notes that Hezekiah, after purifiying the temple, sends messengers throughout the Southern Kingdom, and also to the Northern kingdom of Israel, exhorting them to come to Jerusalem and join with him in the celebration of the festival of Unleavend bread. In these details, Josephus follows the story as it is told in 2 Chronicles 30. However, Josephus also adds the following details, not found in the Chroniclers version: "When [the kings] envoys came and brought them this message. . .the Israelites were not only not persuaded, but even laughed at his envoys as fools; and, when their prophets exhorted them in like manner and foretold what they would suffer if they did not alter their course to one of piety toward God, they poured scorn upon [the envoys] and finally seized them and killed them." {Ant. 9.265) That is, Matthew, like Josephus, draws on a literary topos that Israel persecutes, and sometimes kills, the prophets who are sent with "the king's" message.

I also note here that Matthew's message that suffering of the disciples is both predictable, and necessary, seems to support a thesis elaborated by Judith Perkins in her book, The Suffering Self,7 on the psychology--or more properly, the subjectivity--of early Christians. In this work, Perkins argued that Christianity formed its political and social unity and achieved its institutional power around the image of the suffering self.---Using the language of Foucault and his disciples, she argues that the representation of the self as a body that suffers and is in need of care signals a new subjectivity being produced through the cultural discourses of the late first and early second century. This representation of self as sufferer, she argued challenged another traditional Greco-Roman image of the self as soul/mind controlling the body.

Perkins notes that while the poor and suffering always existed in antiquity, they did not exist in any meaningful way in cultural representations, and were not, therefore, a part of classical Greco-Roman cultural consciousness. Perkins charts this phenomenon through her work on the Hellenistic Romance, the Apocryphal Acts, medical texts, and in early Christian martrydom literature, but it seems also suggestive of what is going on in the Gospel of Matthew.

And yet, in spite of the heavy weight of the theological, literary, and--if we find Perkin's thesis compelling--even psychological, need for Matthew to portray his community as daily facing persecution and even death, most biblical scholars assume that at root there lies an originary historical phenomenon beyond the crucifixion of Jesus. That is, the overwhelming scholarly consensus is that, after the death of Jesus, the historical Matthean community itself faced persecution, and--some would say--even death, at the hands of "the Jews."8

While there is much variation among biblical scholars about which verses in Matthew are transparently referential---that is about which biblical verses really do point to historic persecution of Matthean community members by Jews--most biblical scholars assume that some do. It is in attempting to trace these various arguments about which verses really do point to historical persecution of the Matthean community, that I have discovered what, for lack of a better analogy, I can only say is a process that seems akin to fundamentalist proof-texting. That is, many arguments that Jews persecuted Matthean community can be reduced to this: "they must have done it, because the text says they did." Most scholars will acknowledge that not all biblical passages on persecution and martyrdom of early Christ followers can be read as transparently referential.After doing so, however, they will go on to cite certain passages as evidence of non-Christian Jewish persecution of Matthean community members, without much satisfactory explanation about why these verses should be privileged over others.

Take, for example, Jack Sanders, for whom the key text that indicates the historicity of Matthean persecution at the hands of the Jews is Matthew 22:6, the sentence discussed above in the parable of the wedding banquet. In his article on the first decades of Jewish-Christian relations, for Aufstieg und Niedergang, Sanders begins his discussion of persecution in Matthew by noting that it seems primarily to take the form of ostracism, rather than physical violence, and that most references to killing in Matthew are too vague to allow us to draw any conclusions about the persecutors or the places of persecution. After making this minimalist statement about what can be said about historical killings on the basis of Matthew, however, he raises up the parable of the Royal Banquet in Matthew as an indication that non-Christian Jews killed Christian Jews. Here I quote Sanders, "In Matthew 22:3-6 we likely have a reference to the killing of, first, Israelite prophets and, second, Christian missionaries, since these are the probable identities of the groups of servants sent in the parable to the invited guests. Thus, while John's allusion to the killing of Christians is . . . subject to doubt, Matthew's seems to be more precise. Matthew therefore attests. . .persecution. . .along with ostracism (as in John), with possible occasional killing added [emphasis added]."10

In an article by David Simms which focuses on the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22, Simms does not argue that Matthew 22 itself is transparently referential. But he notes the likely persecution of Matthean community by Jews in the following way: "This separation from the Jewish assembly was doubtless a painful experience for the Matthean Church and contributed in no small way to the exaggerated nature of the evangelist's polemic. Moreover, it is quite likely that despite the parting of company there was still some uneasy contact between the Christian Jews of Matthew's Church and their non-Christian Jewish neighbors. The evidence of the Gospel suggests that the former were persecuted to some degree by the latter (Cf. 5:10-12; 10:23 [when they persecute you in one city; flee to the next]). Precisely what forms this persecution took is not easy to determine, but presumably included slander (5:11), rumour-mongering (28:11-15) and even physical assault (5:38-9; 23:34)."11

Graham Stanton, in an article on the Gospel of Matthew and Judaism, disagrees with Daniel Hare's limiting Jewish persecution of Christians to the pre-70 era, and wants to argue that Jewish persecution extends into the post 70 ear. For evidence of this ongoing Jewish persecution, Stanton cites John 16:2, "The will put you out of the syngagogues; indeed the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think that he makes an act of worship equivalent to the offering of a sacrifice," and the "evidence" from I Clement, where Zelos among Jewish opponents of Christianity leads "literally" to death.12

Ulrich Luz, offers a very wide textual base as "evidence" for Jewish persecution of Matthean community in a footnote to his commentary on Matthew 10. There, he directs the reader to consult the following sources for the persecution of the Matthean communitiy by Judaism, "Hare, pp. 19-129, passim, Gal. 4:29, 6;12;, I Thess. 2:15-16, etc." Presumably the etc. here implies that all verses in the New Testament (and perhaps all early Christian literature?) that speak of Jews persecuting Christ believers should be read as transparent evidence that the Matthean community is persecuted by Jews.13

As one final example of how biblical scholars cite some passages as transparently referential on the question of Jewish persecution of the Matthean community, let me point to Douglas Hare's landmark study of persecution in Matthew. Hare, of course, is a minimalist, finding little evidence for Jewish Persecution of Christians in the first century. Yet the "evidence" he does find for such persecution relies on reading New Testament passages that speak of such persecution as transparently referential. Consider, for example, his treatment of Matthew 23:34. This verse which caps Matthews long woes to the Pharisees discourse, reads, "Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town." Hare notes that it is astounding that "the author of Matthew would attribute to Jesus a prophecy that the Pharisees would crucify Christians," since "there is not a shred of evidence that Jews employed crucifixion as a legal form of capital punishment." His solution, then to this puzzling charge in Matthew that Pharisees will kill, crucifiy, flog and pursue Christians from town to town is not to wonder whether Matthew has set forth an entire string of hyperbolic accustations that have no correspondence to reality. Rather, he argues that this verb "crucify" and the sentiment that "Pharisees would crucify Christians," must be are the clumsy addition of a later copyist. His assumption then, that all the other verbs in this list must have historical referents. That is, he implies that Jews pursued Christians from town to town, flogged them, and yes, killed them, because Matthew 23:34, purged of the interpolated verb "crucifixion" still says so.14

This is by no means an exhaustive list of scholarly treatments of passages that suggest historical persecution of Matthean community by Jews. But I hope from this sampling to make one small point and to raise a question or two to add to our discussion today. The point is this: Many scholars argue for historical persecution of Matthean Jewish Christians by other Jews by pointing to certain verses within in the Gospel of Matthew, and sometimes, within other early Christian literature, as transparently referential. But it seems to me that if one is going to argue for the historicity of such persecution, this needs to be done with more care, and with greater methodological sophistication.15 As I have argued in this paper, at the very minimum, we need to acknowledge how great the theological, literary and psychological reasons were for Matthew to portray his community as being perpetually persecuted, and then to ask the question, are these sufficient to explain the pervasiveness of persecution in Matthew, or must there have been a historical "root cause," beyond the death of Jesus himself.

To answer this question, it seems that scholars working on the relationship between early non-Christian Jews and Christian Jews, might do well to consider the state of the question concerning "who (or what) killed Jesus?" As we know, the answer found in early Christian literature, in myriad versions, is that it was the Jews, while Romans, if present at all, looked on wringing their hands in distress. But in spite of all early Christian textual claims to this effect, we now have reached a scholarly consensus, of course, that the Romans crucified Jesus. This sort of scholarly awareness concerning the persecution and crucifixion of Jesus, seems not to have translated into much work on the persecution, and murder of early Jewish Christians. As one example of where we are on this question, let me point to James Carroll's new book, Constantine's Sword: The Chruch and The Jews. While Carroll devotes more than two chapters to arguing for Roman, rather than Jewish, responsibility for crucifying Jesus, he devotes merely a few sentences to the question of early non-Christian Jews persecuting Christian Jews. Here he seems to presume that the early Christian stories of the stoning of Stephen, and the death of James are transparently referential, and that no comment on the motives of early Christians for telling these stories is necessary.16

Finally, I argue that research into the question of non-Christian Jewish violence against Jewish-Christians (in the Matthean community, and in general) should look less to the New Testament texts themselves, and more to other first century sources that might illuminate the dynamics of inter-Jewish violence and censure. With this in mind, I would conclude my paper by a brief consideration of the only written record of a first century killing of a Christian Jew by a non-Christian Jew outside of the New Testament, Josephus' account of the death of James, the brother of Jesus in Antiquities XX. Let me summarize this text briefly: Ananus, high priest and Saducee, notes that the interim between the death of one Roman governor, Festus, and the arrival of another, Albinus, gives him opportunity to convene the judges of the Sanhedrin; to charge James and others with transgressing the law, and to have him stoned. This passage is generally studied for what it might reveal about the power of Sanhedrin to execute, and therefore for what bearing it might have for understanding the trial of Jesus. But for understanding the relationship between non-Christian and Christian Jews subsequent to Jesus' death, it is the next sentence that is most intriguing. Josephus notes that those inhabitants of the city who were considered the most fair-minded and who were strict in the observance of the law (most likely, the Pharisees), "were offended at this." Or perhaps,"were burdened with grief over this." (Bareos enegkan epi touto). These fair minded and strict interpreters of the law seek to have Ananus deposed for his flagrant lawlessness. While much could be, and has been, said about this text, I note here only one thing. If the only historical document we had regarding Christian-Jewish relations in the first century, we might be able to conclude that Christian Jews, such as James, had allies among non-Christian Jews. The strict observers of the law are burdened with grief at Ananus' reckless use of power, and the resulting death of the brother of Jesus. They use their influence to convince Rome to depose a priest who has put a follower of Christ to death. What happens to our reconstructions of historical interchange among Christian and non Christian Jews, if we begin, not with Matthew 23, or Matthew 10, but with this story of strict observers of the law, burdened with grief at the death of James?

1.  Good introductions to this question, from someone working in the area of early Christian history, can be found in the articles of Elizabeth A. Clark. See her, "The Lady Vanishes: Dilemmas of a Feminist Historian after the 'Linguistic Turn,'" Church History 67, no. 1 (1998): 1-31; and also her earlier essay, "Ideology, History, and the Construction of 'Woman' in Late Ancient Christianity," Journal of Early Christian Studies 2 (1994): 155-84.

2.  For further discussion of this issue, see Shelly Matthews, "Thinking of Thecla: Issues in Feminist Historiography," forthcoming, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Fall 2001.

3.  See for example the works of metahistorians such as Hayden White. In the discipline of New Testament studies, Elisabeth Fiorenza has written widely on this issue.

4.  Douglas Hare The Them of Jewish Persecution of Christians in the Gospel According to St. Matthew (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967) 145.

5.  Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20 (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 94.

6.  Odil Hannes Steck, Israel und Das Gewaltsame Geschick der Propheten (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1967).

7.  Judith Perkins, The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era (London/New York: Routledge, 1995).

8.  Distinctions are made among Matthean scholars about the nature and scope of "Jewish" persecution. Both Daniel Hare and Ulrich Luz argue that post 70 CE church is no longer persecuted by Jews but that Matthew looks back to pre-70 persecution of Christ believers by Jews when shaping his Gospel. Graham Stanton argues that it is possible "to refute the claim that Jewish persecution of Christians is past history by the time that the evangelist writes (Gospel for a New People, p. 159). Robert Gundry in the second edition of his commentary on Matthew, foregrounds Jewish persecution in Matthew by changing his subtitle from "A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art," to "A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution," and by noting on page 5 of the introduction to his new work, "Persecution does not have its source in Roman government, but among Jewish leaders in Jerusalem." Daniel Harrington is most cautious regarding persecution, but still assumes its "historical reality." He notes of Jewish persecution of the Matthean community, "What persecution there was seems . . .to have been local and sporadic--but nonetheless real for those who suffered," and "Jewish persecution of early Christians should not be exaggerated. By no means does it equal Christianity's record in persecuting Jews over the centuries. Moreover, the persecution alluded to in Matt. 10:17 pitted Jew against Jew; it took place within Judaism and was not the action of one religion against another." (Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 47)

9.  Gundry is an exception here, see note above.

10.  Jack T. Sanders, "The First Decades of Jewish-Christian Relations," ANRW II.26.3, 1050. See similar argument in his Schismatics, Sectarians, and Dissidents (SCM Press, 1993).

11.  David Sim, "The Man without the Wedding Garment," HeyJ 31(1990) 165-178, esp. 175.

12.  Graham N Stanton, Gospel for a New People: Studies in Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1992) 59-60.

13.  Luz, Matthew 8-20, 90 n 47.

14.  Hare, 88-93. Luz argues similarly concerning the four verbs found in 23:34. He notes that Christians were never crucified by Jews, and that therefore this verb is not transparently referential. But he does assume transparent referentiality for the remaining verbs, "kill, flog, and pursue from town to town." For the historicity of flogging, he cites Dtn 25.2; 2 Cor 11:24, and Bill. III 527-530. To support the possible historicity of "fleeing from town to town," he cites the Pella tradition in Eusebius. Though he concedes it happened rarely (in sehr vereinzelten Fällen ) he argues for the historicity of "Jews" killing "Christians" by citing the death of Stephen in Acts 7, the death of James in Acts 12:2, and the death of James the brother of Jesus in Antiquities 20. Ulrich Luz, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (vol 3; Neukrichen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag 1997) 3.375.

15.  I should say that I do not mean to fault Daniel Hare's groundbreaking study on persecution, published in 1967, for not employing methodology developed and elaborated subsequent to his work. Of greater concern are more recent studies of Matthew that still presume that Matthean texts that suggest "Jewish" violence against the Matthean community can be read as transparently referential.

16.  James Carrol, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001). For his discussion of the stoning of Stephen, see pp. 70, 108, 130, 132, 135; on the death of James see pp. James, 70, 108, 132, 188).