Here’s the link to this article by David Madison.
Dealing with some of the curiosities in Matthew’s gospel
I have often pointed
out that the gospels are a minefield. Randel Helms has said it even better: “The Bible is a self-destructing artifact.” We are far removed from the thought world of those who wrote the New Testament, so it’s hardly a surprise that we find some very strange things in the gospels. One of my purposes in these Pop Quizzes for Christians is to encourage them to look beneath the rituals, ceremonies, and sermons—all of which are designed to present a magnificent case for Christianity. But is that what we actually find in the gospels? If the brain is fully in gear, if folks were in the habit of questioning everything, they could see that far too much just doesn’t make sense. When we open the New Testament, the gospel of Matthew is the first thing we see—although Mark was actually the first to be written. There is a lot in Matthew that should make Christians wonder how/why it should be taken seriously.
This quiz is designed to draw attention to some major flaws that should not exist in a divinely inspired document. Here are the links to previous quizzes: One Two Three Four Five Six
Matthew’s gospel opens with a 16-verse genealogy of Jesus, tracing his lineage back to King David; this was an essential credential to establish Jesus as the messiah. But then Matthew declares that Jesus was conceived by the holy spirit: Joseph wasn’t the father. Discuss why Matthew felt he could present—and get way with—such a contradiction.
This is verse 20 of Matthew 1: “…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’” Discuss the problems any historian faces when the argument is made that this should be taken seriously.
Read Isaiah 7 and Hosea 11. Do you find anything in these two chapters that reference Jesus of Nazareth? Yet Matthew used Isaiah 7:14 and Hosea 11:1 to boost his argument that Jesus had special divine status. Discuss Matthew’s theology in this deceptive use of scripture.
Matthew 6:19-20: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
Explain how Christians today square this with their extravagant consumer lifestyles?
We are stumped by conflicting Jesus-script that Matthew presents. Consider:
Matthew 18:21-22: “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’”
But when Jesus sent his disciples out to preach, this level of forgiveness is absent:
Matthew 10:14-15: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”
Similar severity is found in the last judgement scene in Matthew 25: Those who fail to show sufficient compassion will end up in eternal fire (vv. 41 and 45).
How can this incoherence in Matthew’s Jesus-script be explained?
Here is one of the strangest texts in the New Testament:
At themoment Jesus died,Matthew reports (27:52-53): “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” This remarkable happening is not mentioned in the other gospels or in the epistles—nor does it appear in any other records of the time. Explain why historians have trouble believing this account, which looks very much like a tale suitable for Halloween.
Answers and Comments
Descended from David, or conceived by a holy spirit, with no human father? For modern readers—who give it much thought—this seems to be a blend of theologies that, in fact, cannot be blended. But those for whom Matthew wrote were probably satisfied that the man who raised Jesus was descended from David; that justified the genealogy. Did it even occur to them that there is a major blunder here?
This was an audience that accepted the superstitions and miracle folklore of the ancient world. Other cults believed that their heroes and deities had been conceived by gods and born to human women, hence Matthew probably felt, “Why not?” when he added this to his story of Jesus. Contemporary readers are right to assume that Matthew wasn’t bound by rigorous logic, and he wrote long before there was a scientific understanding of reproduction. Luke went along with Matthew’s idea, in fact he elaborated substantially on the fantasy. Mark, John, and the apostle Paul fail to mention the miraculous origin of Jesus; it’s a minority opinion in the New Testament.
In Matthew 1:20 we read that it was in a dream that Joseph got word about Mary being pregnant by a holy spirit. Most New Testament scholars date Matthew’s gospel to the late first century, at least fifty years after the death of Jesus—and eighty years after his birth. So historians can’t take this story seriously unless they know where/how Matthew got his information. Writing accurate, authentic history requires access to contemporaneous documentation, items that were created very near the time of an event. So how could Matthew have found out about Joseph’s dream? Maybe Joseph kept a diary? But was he literate? If he did keep a diary, where was it archived so that Matthew had access to it? And even if such a diary existed, and he wrote about a dream, how could we possibly verify that an angel had spoken to him?
I have lots of weird dreams, and when I wake up I’m relieved to be back to reality!
John Loftus has described the dilemma for historians: “How might anonymous gospel writers, 90-plus years later, objectively know Jesus was born of a virgin? Who presumably told them? The Holy Spirit? Why is it God always speaks to individuals in private, subjective, unevidenced whispers? Those claims are a penny a dozen.” (Debunking Christianity Blog, 25 December 2016)
Matthew 1 is fantasy literature, not history.
Isaiah 7:14: “…the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.” Hosea 11:1: “…When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” The context of these verses has nothing whatever to do with the prediction of a coming messiah or savior. But Matthew was hunting for Old Testament verses that for him were proof that Jesus had been predicted centuries in advance. Today we simply identify this as abuse/misuse of scripture—theology off on a wrong track completely. In fact, Matthew got really carried away. Read Luke’s birth story: after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary headed back to Nazareth with Jesus. For Luke, that was where they lived, and there is no mention of a flight to Egypt; nor is it found in the other gospels. But Matthew was so eager to apply Hosea 11:1 to Jesus: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Clearly, however, the Hosea text is about the people of Israel. Matthew was driven by his theology to make things up.
Imagine a theologian, five or six centuries from now, wanting to show that Harry Potter was a divine hero, by citing Isaiah 64:8, Jeremiah 18:6, Matthew 27:7—all of which include the word potter. We’d say, “How goofy is that,” but this is exactly the technique Matthew used in applying Isaiah 7:14 and Hosea 11:1 to Jesus. But his case is even weaker: the word Jesus does not appear in these verses in Isaiah or Hosea.
“Do not store up treasures on earth” (Matthew 6:19) appears to have little impact on the behavior of church-going Christians I know. As much as anyone else they acquire nice houses with giant TVs and a wide array of indispensable consumer goods—and they train their kids to behave the same way. “More, more, more,” seems to be their basic creed—”as much as we can afford.” Of course, the most important storing of treasure on earth is the pension plan, and retirement savings accounts. A few verses later, in Matthew 6:25, we read: “…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” Is that really how any of us, Christians included, manage life today?
These verses are in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, which includes other commands that most believers I know simply ignore, e.g., give to anyone who begs, don’t refuse anyone who asks to borrow from you, if you are sued, hand over more than you’re sued for. And the worst advice imaginable: “Do not resist an evildoer” (verse 5:39). In fact, it would be quite a challenge for most of the devout to read the Sermon on the Mount carefully and decide what they can take seriously. It would seem that Matthew wrote his Jesus-script based on the assumption that the Kingdom of God would arrive soon, thus all earthy concerns would vanish: hence the importance of storing up treasures in heaven—whatever that means. So much advice in this famous sermon strikes us as naïve and unrealistic.
From time to time when I’m watching Father Brown on TV, the good priest assures folks that god is loving and forgiving—as long as the sinner repents and asks for forgiveness. This is the kindly Man Upstairs that the devout want most to believe in. Maybe Jesus was right: he forgives seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22). But is that really the message that Matthew intended? There is too much incoherence in Matthew’s Jesus-script. Jesus assured his disciples that any village or household that refused to listen to their preaching would be destroyed—they would suffer the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah. One of the most beloved texts in the gospels is Jesus speaking of those who do a variety of good deeds, e.g. feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison. “…just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). This is indeed a beautiful text, but then this sentiment is wiped out by the assurance that those who don’t show sufficient compassion will be dispatched to suffer in eternal fire. Believers who want Father Brown’s version of god can’t be happy with this. It sounds very much like extreme, brutal theology typical of cults that aren’t bothered by incoherence.
Matthew 27:52-53 has been ridiculed a lot: zombies—recently brought back to life at the moment Jesus died—then leaving their tombs on Eastern morning to tour Jerusalem. Why didn’t Jesus bother to hang out with them for a while? Just on the face of it, historians can’t be bothered to take this seriously. Other than these two verses—written decades later—there is no other mention anywhereof this macabre episode. Yes, it qualifies as a tall tale, one, in fact, that undermines belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Maybe that’s a tall tale as well, as
Robert Conner illustrates in his book, Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story. With these two verses, Matthew makes a joke of any claim that he was a divinely inspired author—if so, he went rogue far too much of the time.
Matthew tells us nothing of his sources: did he really know anything about Jesus? He copied most of Mark’s gospel without admitting he’d done so—and changed Mark’s wording as he saw fit. Isn’t plagiarism a sin? It sure isn’t what we’d expect if an author’s pen is guided by divine inspiration.
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available.
His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.
The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.