Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.
Darth Vader, Star War: Episode IV – A New Hope
A good translator can work around a poor script, so as we’re dealing with modern English versions of Matthew I’ve got no idea if the originals read as bad as what we’ve got. The previous two chapters of Matthew have had only minor characters speaking – angels, the Magi and Herod – or prophecy which I assume can be read as speech. In all cases the speech comes across as extremely stilted and in no way could be confused with how any normal person would speak. And there’s also the way conversations seem to just finish, much like TV dramas where people hang up the telephone without saying goodbye. We hear what Herod asks the Magi to do, but there’s no reply from them and the action jump cuts to them following the star. If it were a TV drama Herod’s words would be followed by a commercial break, and when we returned the Magi would be saddled up with the star in the (night) sky. However, what works on the screen doesn’t necessarily work on the page, and you’re left to wonder why for two chapters no one has replied to anyone. But let’s cut Matthew a bit of slack and put that down to the speakers being out of the ordinary themselves. For all I know supernatural beings, wise men and kings really did speak like undercooked Shakespeare 2000 years ago.
But in Matthew 3 we come to the first major player in John the Baptist, and he’s got quite a lot to say. I’m going to reprint the NIV version here so you can judge for yourself whether you think John speaks like a real person:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
Now I don’t know about you, but if I were wandering through the wilderness of Judea and saw John wearing his clothes made from camel hair with a black leather belt, eating locusts and wild honey, and raving about vipers and unproductive trees being thrown into a fire, then I’d give him a wide berth. I certainly wouldn’t be letting him put my head underwater for fear he may never let me back up.
Before you complain that I’m missing the actual meaning of what John is talking about, I’ll preempt that by reminding you I’m not talking about his meaning, but his idiom. My point is that the Gospels are not accurate representations of the events. The bizarre way that people speak is a real clue that this is the case. And as Christians decide dogma directly on what Jesus was supposed to have said, then any doubt about those words puts a serious doubt on the correct way people should act out their faith.
For example, Christians interpret Jesus’s words about divorce in Matthew 19 in different ways, yet for millions of Catholics their meaning is explicitly anti-divorce. For debates like this not to be rendered meaningless there has to be complete confidence that the words that people speak in the Gospels are verbatim. When John the Baptist comes out with corkers like, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire,” then I’m reminded of the Darth Vader quote above. Yes, I love the consonance of ‘technological terror’; No, I can’t see a real person saying it. Lines like that spring only from the mouths of characters.