musings from my rich inner world…

Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark

W. Paul Jones reminds us that though there are those in every generation who try to figure out who Jesus "truly" was, their findings end up saying far more about them as searchers than about the subject of their inquiry (53).  Our experiences not only provide the lens through which we perceive Jesus, but also inform the contours of the very questions that we ask.  The same can be said for the authors of Mark and Matthew and the faith communities for which they wrote.

The literary framework of Mark cues readers into the fact that Jesus is "Christ, Son of God" (Mk 1:1), but within the narrative this "messianic secret" (Ehrman 84) is only gradually unveiled.  At first, only Jesus hears the voice from heaven proclaiming him as Son (Mk 1:11) and only demonic powers recognize Jesus’ true identity (Mk 1:21, 34; 3:11).  The disciples don’t seem to get it, nor does Jesus’ own family or hometown (Mk 4:41; 6:1-6).  Though Peter finally proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, even then the disciples do not understand that Jesus must undergo suffering, rejection, and death (Mk 8:31-33).

Though the Markan community wants to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, they are also occupied with a major question:  why would the Son of God enter the course of human affairs with such little fanfare or recognition, only to die in what looked like ignominious defeat?  [Instructor’s comment: well said]  And further, if Jesus is truly the Son of God, why is their faith community subject to rejection, persecution and suffering?  In answer to this question, Mark’s Jesus tells his would-be disciples that he has come not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk 10:45).  The cost of following will be high, with betrayals, beatings, and trials before governors and kings (Mk 13:9-13).

Like Mark, Matthew also declares from the beginning of his gospel that Jesus is Christ (or, as interpreted in the NRSV, the Messiah).  However, rather than focusing on Jesus’ role as "Son of God," Matthew focuses on Jesus’ place within the trajectories of the Abrahamic (Ge 12:1-3) and Davidic (2 Sa 7:8-13) traditions:  this Jesus will be both a blessing to the entire world and also the rightful heir to the throne of Judah.  While the Markan Jesus appears to reject many of the premises of Jewish ritual, the Jesus of Matthew is quintessentially Jewish, coming to fulfill prophecies (Mt 1:23; 2:6, 14, 18, 23; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; etc.) and the Law (Mt 5:17).  In a manner not emphasized in the Markan account, Matthew’s Jesus demands exemplary behavior well beyond the letter of the Law (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount).  Rather than a Jesus who stands in opposition to the Law, this Jesus instead calls his followers to a "higher righteousness" manifested through action (Levine 340), even telling his followers to do as the Pharisees say, but not as they do (Mt 23:3).  Based on the emphasis placed on Jesus’ Jewish heritage and his regard for the Law, it appears that the Matthean congregation may also have been of Jewish origin.  This idea is further supported by passages adapted from Mark that originally depicted the Jewish disciples as faithless that have been changed to paint Jesus’ followers in a more positive light.  Where once they had no faith, they now have little faith (Mt 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; 17:20).  Where once they did not understand in Mark, they have a better handle on Jesus in Matthew.  [Instructor’s comment: True, but how does this relate to Jewish origin?]

For the modern Church the portraits of Jesus that appear in the first two gospels remain relevant.  Sunday after Sunday we sing songs, declaring Jesus as sovereign over all and speak of his reign in all the earth, and yet, there is still much suffering in the world.  By viewing the reign of God as one of service to one another rather than occupying a position of earthly power, we are able to appreciate the hidden secrets of the Markan Jesus.  By concentrating on the heart and intent of the Law rather than splitting hairs over the letter, we also can attempt to live out the higher moral standard to which we are called by the Matthean Messiah.  In these ways we are able to press ever on, bringing about the vision of the reign of God in the here and now, knowing that it is not power over others that ends violence and suffering, but rather in the recognition of our interdependence and in treating others as we wish to be treated (Mt 7:12).  This is the shared secret of Matthew and Mark.

Works Cited

Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: a historical introduction to the early Christian writings. 4th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Jones, William Paul. A Season in the Desert: making time holy. Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2000.

Levine, Amy-Jill. "Matthew." Women’s Bible Commentary. Ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe. Expanded Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998. 339-349.

Assignment Instructions

Critical Reflections.  In response to given questions throughout the course of the semester, students will contribute three brief critical reflections.  In a typed, double-spaced response of 400-750 words (i.e. 2-3 pages), students will offer a reasoned reply to one of the questions posed for the topic under consideration.  Critical reflections should demonstrate:

  • thorough consideration of relevant textual evidence,
  • explicit and substantial interaction with assigned readings and classroom discussion, and
  • rational argumentation in support of a focused thesis statement or claim.

Christology. Imagine you were teaching an adult education course entitled, “Jesus in the Gospels.” As you prepare your essay, you might reflect on the following questions. Please do not consider them a template for your essay.

  1. How would you go about finding material for your course in Mark and Matthew? Where would you look in those Gospels? What methods would you use?
  2. What one issue would you emphasize for each Gospel, and why?
  3. And how would you apply each Gospel to the contemporary community of faith?

Instructor’s Comments

Strong, often independent observations.  You write crisply and in an engaging way.  Lots of attention to each Gospel.

I’m looking for a little more clarity and risk.  How is Jesus "Christ" in these Gospels?  You come closer with Mark than with Matthew.

The closest I see is this:

Mark:  servant who gives his life (a mystery)

Matthew: one who calls to a higher standard

I see what Matthew has but Mark lacks; I don’t see the converse.  Maybe just a little more explaining through…

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