Printed from http://tektonics.org/gospelculture.php
Even critics who late-date the Gospels agree that the authors of these works came from substantially different backgrounds. It is accepted overall that the author of Matthew was a learned Jew who had a scribal/teaching background, while Luke was an educated Gentile. Their life-experiences as such undoubtedly affected how they related things in the Gospels, and we saw an example of this in our essay on terms. Now let's consider a more pronounced example of a way in which culture shaped a narrative.
Our focus is the story of the centurion whose servant was healed. Matthew and Luke record this story, and here is how they present it:
Matthew 8:5-13 And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.
Luke 7:2-10 And a certain centurion's servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die. And when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto him the elders of the Jews, beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they besought him instantly, saying, That he was worthy for whom he should do this: For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue. Then Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself: for I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof: Wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole that had been sick.
There are differences in reportage here seen to be of great significance, but a little cultural background reveals two stories in harmony in concept and substance, even if not in verbiage:
- The big question: Did the centurion actually come (Matthew) or he send elders, and then friends (Luke)?
- Related question: Did Matthew take this saying from its original context and put it on Jesus' lips when he didn't say it?
If you have seen this one before -- and it is a "classic" among Skeptics -- you may know the standard answer: "In the view of the ancients, agency and representation was the same as being there. If the elders and friends were there representing the centurion, so then was the centurion."
If the Skeptics don't like this answer, well, that makes no difference -- it was a reality of ancient culture, and the evidence shows that this was accepted to the point that actions directed by another could be directly attributed to that person.
For example, in the Babylonian creation story Enuma Elish (Heidel, Babylonian Genesis, 188), Tablet 6 "clearly says" that Marduk gave a plan to create man to the god Ea, who then went and executed the plan:
As [Mar]duk hears the words of the gods
His heart prompts (him) to create ingenious things
He conveys his idea to Ea,
Imparting the plan [which] he had conceived in his heart:
"Blood will I form and bone will I cause to be;
Then will I set up lullu, 'Man' shall be his name!
Yes, I will create lullu: Man!...
Marduk sounds like the big boss here, but who ends up doing the work? Marduk attributes the crime of strife to the god Kingu, and:
They bound him and held him before Ea;
Punishment they inflicted upon him by cutting (the arteries) of his blood.
With his blood they created mankind;
He [Ea] imposed the services of the gods (upon them) and set the gods free.
After Ea, the wise, had created mankind...
So did Ea create man, or did Marduk? Ask Tablet 7 for another opinion. It "clearly says":
Tutu may the people, in the fourth place, magnify as Agaku...
...Who removed the yoke imposed upon the gods, his enemies;
Who created mankind to set them free...
Here's another example, but from the Bible:
John 19:1 Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him.
Pilate was one hefty fellow -- he didn't leave the scourging to his soldiers, did he?
The Latins had a maxim: "What our agent does we do ourselves." Historically it is quite likely that the centurion sent elders and/or friends to make the requests -- under the ancient rules of patronage and honor, a person of high social status (like the centurion) never made a request of one of lower status unless they were desperate [Keener, commentary on Matthew, 266]. To have actually come out to Jesus physically would have been exceptional.
Why does Matthew shorten the story using the principle of agency? The answer lies in his addition of the material about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and his goal to compile the teachings of Jesus (as noted in our essay here) and his lesser emphasis on action.
But Luke, whose concern is more to express the universality of the Gospel (cf. Luke 2:10, the start of this theme) and is less concerned with specific parties (as he "universalizes" the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to John the Baptist; see here), prefers to report the interaction between the centurion and the Jewish leaders, thus exemplifying the cooperation to be demonstrated by those who come to Jesus (as believers would) with no concern for ethnic barriers -- a striking message at a time when Jewish hatred of Romans, especially Roman soldiers, especially leading Roman soldiers, would have been acute.
One more example is provided from Herzog's Prophet and Teacher [118f]. He notes that Jesus is presented as confronted by the "chief priests and elders" in the temple. Both of these parties would consider their station too high to confront Jesus directly. But Herzog concludes not that this makes the events ahistorical, but rather that proxies sent on their behalf would be identified with those who sent them. They did not need to be present in person if their representatives were there.
The saying about people coming from the east and the west appears in Luke in an entirely different place (Luke 13:29). So did Matthew "rip" it out of its context? There are two things to consider before making this charge.
First, as N. T. Wright has noted, the things that Jesus said in teaching, he likely said numerous times and in numerous situations. Luke's emphasis on universality would lead him to report it when it was said in a different context rather than this one.
Second, from our previous essay linked above, recall that Matthew is an ancient writer with limited space for diversions -- if Jesus said this later, as a comment upon this situation, Matthew hardly has the room or the need to make a diversionary explanation to that effect. His record needs to be efficient and direct for his purpose, and it is unreasonable to expect Matthew or any ancient writer to have plugged in diversionary explanations and "by the ways" for the sake of our own edification.
In short: critics who object that one account "clearly says" one thing, while another "clearly says" another, lack an understanding and appreciation of how ancient writers shaped their reports for didactic purposes, yet thereby did not (of necessity) compromise truth.
Now for a related cultural consideration in composition. Check this verse:
Luke 5:19 And when they could not find by what way they might bring him in because of the multitude, they went upon the housetop, and let him down through the tiling with his couch into the midst before Jesus.
Critics will say that "tiling" is an error because roofs in Palestine did not have tiles -- only Greek and Roman houses did. Therefore they assume Luke is erroneously anachronizing.
They assume right on the latter, but have been wrong on the former. If intent means that one has not committed error, then such cites as these simply cannot be called errors. In this case, we see Luke intentionally anachronizing for the purpose of making the story more intelligible to a more sophisticated audience.
Today we would do no such thing -- we would say that the roof was made of wood or straw, or whatever, and then include explanatory footnotes like this:
In Palestine, roofs are made of wood or straw, unlike roofs in Greek and Roman areas which are made of tile.
In this era before footnotes and limited office supplies, Luke had no room for such diversions. It would therefore behoove him rather to make the account easily intelligible, rather than distract the reader with the question, "How is it they have a roof not made of tiles?"
Keener in his Matthean commentary observes that Josephus (as well as Philo) "as frequently as possible...translates native Jewish ideas into broader hellenistic categories to make them more intelligible (and acceptable to his milieu)." Josephus was writing to an audience of educated Romans. Keener therefore advises keeping a wider frame of reference when consulting ancient texts, and it is in the same light that we should read verses like Luke 5:19.