The earliest gospels 4 – Matthew (according to P L Couchoud)

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by Neil Godfrey

Matthew Evangelist. The text also says - Abrah...
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This post follows on from four earlier ones that are archived here. (That is, it’s take on the Gospel of Matthew is entirely my understanding of Paul Louis Couchoud’s analysis of this gospel as a reaction to what he believes to have been the original Gospel produced by Marcion. Quotation page references are from Couchoud’s “The Creation of Christ”. Scholarship has moved on since the 1920 and 30’s obviously, but some of the concepts raised — not all of them uniquely Couchoud’s by any means — are worth consideration nonetheless and have the potential to be adapted to the broader question of Gospel origins even today.)

The Gospel attributed to Matthew was composed in Aramaic speaking regions of eastern Syria and northern Mesopotamia where the Jewish population was numerous and Christians were mostly from Jewish backgrounds, says Couchoud. It was written in Aramaic, among a Christian community that saw itself as literally related to the ethnical Israel, and in response to both the Gospel attributed to Mark, said to have been Peter’s scribe, and the Gospel of Marcion. Mark’s gospel was believed to have been too pro-Pauline and anti-Law for their liking.

This scribe who wrote this new gospel structured it in 5 parts in apparent imitation of Moses’ 5 book presentation of the Law. Each part contained narratives and precepts. (The birth narrative at the beginning and Passion at the end formed a prologue and epilogue to this five-part book. The work was to be attributed to a credible eyewitness, so substituted Matthew, a disciple very well known in the Aramaic region where he and his readers were (Matthew’s tomb was reported as being located there around ca 190), for Marcion’s and Mark’s publican named Levi.

This scribe (to be called Matthew) expressed his own view with the parable of Jesus teaching that the new faith is a precious mix of the new and the old. So he did not discard the old as Marcion had done.

Matthew’s primary purpose was to demonstrate far more clearly than Mark had done that Jesus was the Messiah who was the fulfilment of Old Testament scriptures. He liberally adds OT quotations to make his point.

For Marcion and Mark it was impossible for Jesus to have been a Son of David if he was also the Lord of David. Matthew found a way out of this contradiction and so proved even more firmly that Jesus was indeed the Messianic Son of David of Promise. So he gave him a dual genealogy. He made Jesus Son of God by having him born of a virgin, and also a legal son of David through a genealogy up to Joseph. Until this gospel Jesus was always the root or Lord of David but never his son. Marcion’s and Mark’s gospels made this clear, as did the Revelation of John. Romans 1:3 was not part of the original letter as is apparent from Tertullian’s use of Romans in his attack on Marcion.

Additional scenes were created to demonstrate Jesus’ fulfilment of messianic prophecies, such as his birth in Bethlehem. The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness was expanded to demonstrate that Jesus subjected his powers to the constraints found within the Law. Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfil the Law. Where Marcion had presented some precepts of Jesus as the antithesis of the Law, Matthew cleverly turned these into even stronger and spiritual observances of the Law — so that what appeared to be a violation of the law was in fact a more stringent keeping of it. Forbidding oaths, for example, was not an attack on the law, but a way to exalting the law by having every word as good as an effective oath.

Matthew says that Jesus was not sent to any gentile people and he commands his disciples also to go only to Israelites. So when Mark spoke of Jesus visiting Tyre and Sidon and answering a woman’s prayer there Matthew corrects this. Matthew has the woman come to Israel from Tyre and Sidon to make her appeal. Matthew’s genealogy of Joseph likewise explicitly includes Canaanite and Moabite women in it (Rahab and Ruth) to show that Gentiles were welcomed into the Jewish or Israelite community.

If Mark was seen as anti-Semitic, Matthew instead represented a more hostile division within the Jewish community. He was stridently anti-Pharisee and his Jesus regularly rails abusively against them. Tithing and sabbath keeping were righteous commands, but the Pharisees were at fault for not doing more.

Peter is established as the human head of the church, the rock, whom Jesus rescues in the end from his doubts and failures. The failings of Peter and the Twelve are not denied, but they are forgiven and Peter is rehabilitated. Sinners were to be worked with, and if unrepentant the church itself was to judge. If still they remained stubborn they were to be treated like sinners and publicans — an image quite opposite Mark’s and Marcion’s where Jesus is said to welcome sinners and publicans.

But Matthew did allow for forgiveness. Hence he introduced parables to show that premature judgement could pull out potential wheat as well as tares. Better to let both grow in the churches till the time of Jesus’ return.

The great end-time prophecy of Jesus in Matthew shows that this gospel was written not long after Mark’s, that is not long after 135. Jews and Christians were still living in the shadow of the terrible war of Bar Kochba and Hadrian’s desolation of the Temple area with a pagan temple. The Book of Enoch was invoked to introduce imagery of Jesus returning with tens of thousands of his saints. At the trial of Jesus the condign consequences of this war were foretold by the Jewish mob who cried out to Pilate, “Let the blood of Jesus be upon us and our children!”

Mark’s gospel prepared readers for persecution and martyrdom. Matthew on the other hand “revives the old fever of the Apocalypses and emphasizes the Coming of the Lord, rather than Martyrdom and the Great Trial. He finds new parables to teach that the watch must be unceasing . . . ”

Mark’s resurrection scene had raised many objections that Matthew attempted to answer. So he introduced guards and bribes and false rumours.

This gospel, soon afterwards translated into majestic Greek prose, and that appeared to be from one of the apostles too, quickly supplanted interest in Mark’s gospel.

Nowhere did the Gospel according to Matthew meet with a warmer welcome than at Rome. The Roman church loved its grave and majestic tone, its Biblical air, its practical outlook, and its ecclesiastical sense. It approved this Gospel as a reaction against Marcionite audacities by showing that Jesus was truly the promised Messiah of Israel, by giving him real flesh and blood, a genuine birth, yet preserving his character as God’s own Son. One thing in particular placed it in the first rank. The Roman Church claimed Peter as its founder. All that increased Peter’s authority increased Roman authority. The disciplinary power which Matthew had built up for use of the circle of little churches in the East was seized upon by Rome for her own aggrandisement. Unconsciously the evangelist of Hebrew Christianity had made a gift of vast possibilities to a church of whose existence he was probably unaware, or, in any case, which was beyond the horizon of his consideration. (p.221)

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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “The earliest gospels 4 – Matthew (according to P L Couchoud)”

  1. My response to McGrath’s tirade which I imagine he will delete shortly.

    “Paul-Louis Couchoud has something in common with other mythicists: he was not a historian.” (McGrath)

    And neither is McGrath or any of the ‘historicists’ — they’re all just theologians, which means they’re all just hucksters.

    “But Couchoud also has something in common with the kinds of mythicists
    that could, at one point, be taken seriously: he died more than half a
    century ago. He thus formulated his ideas and wrote about them before
    the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi codices transformed our
    understanding of phenomena such as early Judaism and ancient Gnosticism

    Which makes him almost a Genius — to have come up with the mythicist view before being able to demonstrate from those writings that Christ was invented from pre-Christian Gnosticism — why that is quite a feat!

  2. I would have thought it clear from what I have posted from the beginning (McG links to the second post and not the first one setting out the theme) that I am not expressing Couchoud’s arguments for mythicism at all but his views of the emergence of the gospels on the model of a second century origin. I have also explained why I am doing this but of course McG never mentions that. I have posted enough on Marcion and Mark myself to surely demonstrate I do not agree with some key positions of Couchoud, but McG has completely ignored or overlooked the point and thrust of my posts and resorted to his usual generalized assertions that basically ignore what I have written. The mere mention of Mandaeans is enough for him to write fulsomely about this without any reference to what I actually quoted. It is all so repetitive and pointless.

    I would be more interested if he actually cited a single instance where I express (a selective) unsceptical acceptance of any source for any viewpoint.

    Anyone interested can read what I have discussed and presented for themselves.

  3. It is also instructive to note that whenever Dr McGrath does meet Pavlov expectations by responding to any keyword he associates with his pet hates his documented record is one of totally missing and misconstruing the actual points of the article, book or post that contain the associative words.

    See, for example, his treatment of a post by Richard Carrier that he had to concede he got almost completely wrong: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2011/10/richard-carrier-on-crucified-messiahs.html#comment-329087560

    See also his botched comprehension of Scientific Methodologies as addressed by reviewer D.G.D. Davidson: http://www.scificatholic.com/2011/12/book-review-scientific-mythologies.html Once again McGrath concedes he has no defence for his misrepresentations of what he was reviewing (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2011/12/review-revisited-james-herricks-scientific-mythologies.html).

    But of course when it comes to his similarly mangled “reviews” of anything he writes about Doherty’s work or my own posts then unlike Carrier or Davidson we are being “like creationists” if we point out where he gets things wrong.

    1. Dr. McGrath makes a big point about the fact that since Couchod’s time the DSS and Nag Hammadi texts have been discovered. He seems to think they give data that supports the historicity of Jesus. Yet one imagines that if you had told him that two large troves of documents from Palestine and Egypt would be discovered without one verifiable reference to a human Jesus among them, Couchod would feel his argument had been bolstered.

      1. I have posted recently on at least three other books (Schmithals, Davies, Wajdenbaum) in recent weeks, too, (also on one of Ehrman’s books) so I wonder if Dr McGrath has the same sorts of criticism to make of anything I have said in any of those posts. His silence on my treatment of those might be suggestive about his motives and biases.

      2. Evan wrote, “Dr. McGrath makes a big point about the fact that since Couchod’s time the DSS and Nag Hammadi texts have been discovered. He seems to think they give data that supports the historicity of Jesus…”

        The notion that the DSS and Nag Hammadi “changed everything” turns out to be a myth:

        “Perhaps the renewal of historical Jesus research in the past two decades has derived from a sense that the advance of knowledge now makes success more likely than it had been in the previous quests [refs cited]. This century, after all, has been one of unparalleled growth in discoveries about the ancient Mediterranean world. All this information, however, while wonderfully illuminating virtually every aspect of life in Jesus’ world, does not add substantially to our knowledge of his life in that world [refs cited]. The archaeological discoveries at Qumran and at Nag-Hammadi created those expectations at first, but most scholars today regard them of limited value for knowledge about Jesus [refs cited].”

        Luke Timothy Johnson, “The Humanity of Jesus,” in: J. D. Crossan et al., eds, The Jesus Controversy (1999), pp. 48-74, here p. 55.

        1. I have made mention of Dr McGrath’s apparent laziness more than once now. I have long since learned to relegate almost any and every comment that comes from his keyboard to the “I have no idea but this sounds like a nice cloud that will cover everything” basket. If only he would take the trouble to read what he is criticizing and especially to read what he appeals to by way of rejoinder I would have some respect for his intellectual nous.

  4. I can’t stand it any longer!

    Neil, I don’t think I’ve ever told you that I grew up just across Meridian St. in North East Indianapolis, Indiana which is within a short bicycle ride of Butler University. In fact, I’ve played basketball in the gymnasium, and have had more than one baseball hit “near” the Theological Department’s (McGrath’s) building.

    I’m not in the habit of disparaging schools of higher learning, nor their graduates or faculty based on generalizations, but more than one of my teachers in high school used Butler University as a threat to the last recourse of students who put in a substandard performance. So, please don’t view Dr. McGrath’s opinions as indicative of modern, even mediocre, let alone cutting edge, American theological thought. Butler, to my mind, is not that type of university.

    In keeping with the thoughts of Noam Chomsky on the idea of “the mainstream” with regards to scholarship, I have long seen Butler University as an example, a very conservative school of filtration and socialization; that is, indoctrination, not so much education.

    But, this is just the opinion of a local boy who, it would seem, was smart enough to get out of that very conservative (American conservative, no longer to be confused with sane) state.

    I forget who coined the phrase, but it is said that Indiana is a great state to be from—far from!


    P.S. I think one of my brothers went to Butler. I wonder if anyone told Mother? Ha! …I’m kidding!

    1. That’s interesting, because I am not the only one who has been wondering how on earth someone of such an intellect can possibly have acquired an academic Chair (he has at least had the courage to admit that constructing an argument along formal logical principles is quite beyond him), or how such a one calling himself a historian can do so with only a theological doctorate while demonstrating his utter ignorance of historiographical practices outside his field, and how he can continue to resort to his monotonous ad hominem character attacks, red herrings, straw men, false dichotomies and circularity any time he attempts to denounce his pet hates. I have often wondered how such an academic can get away with all of this under the banner of his institution, speaking not privately but as an academic employee of Butler, presumably without any protest from any governing body at Butler itself.

      What benchmarks must a university in the U.S. or Indiana meet to maintain accreditation?

      1. Neil,
        I’m sure you will agree that the accreditation will be based on the core curriculum, as well as statistics that can be forgiving enough to allow for schools such as Falwell’s Liberty University, or Oral Roberts’ Regent University, both of which are staunch anti-science conservative Christian universities. To neither of which would I send my dog, even with a scholarship—a full scholarship. Well, maybe, if they let him play football.

        I’m thinking that—again keeping with, if not leaning on, Noam Chomsky’s views—there is little short of a full renunciation of conservative Christian, Christological views that will cause problems for McGrath. And this is only if it is done in an academic setting. This supposes his troubles only begin when he doesn’t tow the party line which is a bit of an exaggeration, granted, but only a bit. Neither fundamentalist zealotry nor emotional, as opposed to academic, argumentation will have much of an effect, unfortunately. For myself, being in a position of responsibility, I find myself using caution when my actions reflect on my station or institution. This, as I see it, doesn’t bode well for McGrath’s character, self respect, or claimed credentials regardless of his position. This is the state of biblical scholarship in the US of A.

        So, I’m with you. I can hardly see how his blogs and comments, at least the examples that I have seen over the past couple of years, are not an embarrassment to his station, even at Butler University. I wonder if it’s due to a lack of visibility? On search engines? Repeatedly!

        On a positive note. It is interesting to see instances of Pavlov’s principles at work on the “higher” animals of the kingdom.

          1. In general, don’t!

            Really. You and I have responsibilities that entail reaching tangible goals so as to avoid real consequences, while working with limited assets and time frames, all from a knowledge base that takes years to acquire and needs constant refreshing, and we are expected to keep a civil demeanor in our public discourse so as to not reflect poorly on our respective alma mater, positions, careers, and institutions.

            Should not Dr. McGrath be held to those standards of civil discourse? I think so. All the more so in consideration of the fact that one could argue McGrath’s involvement in my above noted responsibilities is negligible, his claimed view of time and assets dwells on the infinite, and his knowledge base is actually an opinion base that is not substantiated while refreshed as a function of remembering centuries-old traditions performed, at most, sporadically. Therefore, neither stress, nor a compulsive need for accuracy are his excuse for belligerence, even on a good day. So, what is left? To my mind: Christian privilege, total disrespect for evidence that substantiates our position and view and which contravenes his opinion and faith, but mostly his belligerence reflects a total disrespect for us, our existence insults his faith, his cherished Christian Supremacy. The laziness with which he pursues attempts at rebuttals reflects this. I think he is waiting for his God to zap us out of existence.

            Here’s the main problem though. His (and all other religionists throughout all of human history as well) dishonesty shows that he is as aware of the origins of his particular deity, from where that propounded “absolute authority” of his purported deity comes, and where that deity resides and from where it speaks as we are: his imagination. He wants us to SUBMIT uncritically, based on faith, to his imagined deity. They all do! And have you ever noticed deities are as numerous and varied as those who hold such views? This deity reflects the authority (control over all of humanity!) that they themselves lack. It angers religionists to the point of a temper tantrum when we don’t. But, they (and McGrath) know they are not going to Hell for lying for Jesus; they couldn’t possibly imagine why they would.

            Don’t misunderstand me, for at some level, I too pity the pathetic wretch as he is his own worst enemy—as are they all. Their wish for absolute authority corrupts their mind absolutely.

            Wait until it finally hits the religiose that we have no reason, no motivation to falsify, fabricate, or obfuscate evidence that we are evolving biological units of star dust that are lucky enough to be able to comprehend this universe. It may be fanciful to hope that one day we may see those like McGrath finally realize that the mythicist case only elucidates the evolution of what was once a cry for spiritual reconciliation of the oppressed, the out cast, into a literary tool of segregation and substantiation of congregational authority from which it is finally morphed into just another tool of oppression, subjugation and obliteration of liberty. This is their gravest misconception of our view; for it is not our’s that facilitates totalitarian suppression of humanity and their fantasy of annihilation (I can hardly imagine the rot that would keep a human mind from recognizing the sickness in this) of all who dissent from their views.

            On a happier note, imagine the flowers that may spring eternal from the compost that is their brain. Yes, I wish that I meant that only figuratively.

  5. Our “scholarly friend” has given away his real motives in his letter to a senator addressing his other pet fear, creationism: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2011/12/creationist-legislation-in-indiana.html His argument is almost entirely about defending the faith, and science and respect for other faiths are secondary appeals used to protect the faith of vulnerable Christians and to support the social respectability of his main interest, mainstream Christianity.

    He once posted an anti-creationist video that tackled the question entirely from a science perspective without any other religious interest at all: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2011/12/why-we-still-have-to-take-creationism-seriously.html I suggested in response that the professor could learn from this video and embrace the same tactics as scientists do, and avoid character attacks and insults etc. No response, of course. As someone else here has brought out, his model is a biblical prophet who resorted to personal insults to defend the faith.

  6. It just occurred to me that the reason our dear doctor imposed his post at this point of my series on Couchoud was my mention of something he actually does know something about — Mandaeans. It only took the mere mention of that word on the part of Rene Salm for our good doctor to open fire with all cannons without the least regard as to what Salm actually said. In our good doctor’s mind Salm was a mythicist and he spoke of Mandaeans therefore he was expressing his ignorance. Of course McG could not — even when invited — actually pinpoint any error on Salm’s part. Ditto with my post on Couchoud. I suspected if I repeated C’s reference to Mandaeanism, which is quite incidental and I could easily have omitted it without any trouble at all, that a certain Dr McG would nonetheless find out and launch into some new tirade. So I made sure I quoted the precise words of Couchoud to see if this Doctor would actually address what C says. But of course the answer was No. In his post he merely blasted C (and me) for daring to mention the Mandaeans and therefore, by definition, we were proving ourselves ignoramuses in his mind.

    Of course McG never found anything in C’s words that were at fault or that he disagreed with. Note his studied generalizations. It would be a complete waste of time, however, as I know from experience, to actually press this “scholar” for a specific charge of exactly — with quotations — what Couchoud (or I) actually gets wrong.

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