Matthew 3: 1 – 12

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.

8 thoughts on “Matthew 3: 1 – 12

  1. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

    I just wanted to say that I talk like that all the time. Or write that way. Or aspire to write and speak that way, anyways. And a lot of the people I read write like that: there is a many-streamed tradition running from anriquity through the Reformation polemicists and Macaulay and Twain and the Chesterbelloc and Mencken to the modern fire-breathing columnists of both right and left who write like that (though nowadays they use more f-bombs). It is a sad indictment of our pathetically bloodless culture that you can characterise passionate, poetic, polemical language incandesecent with imagery and bursting with life as ‘bizarre’. That is just how people ought to talk, when they actually give a shit about something.

    When you are giving a speech to an audience, you compose your lines. You are in effect your own character. John the Baptist could very well have sat down and thought out carefully what he wanted to say and come up with exactly those words as attributed to him, just like Churchill said that stuff about blood sweat and tears and Lincoln said that stuff about four-score and seven and I said that stuff about wanting JCU to be like those universities in South Korea where students set themselves on fire for no readily comprehensible reason.

    Reply
    1. winstoninabox Post author

      The written word is different to the spoken word, which makes the speech used sound highly stilted. The words spoken by the characters sound like written words, and written with a lot of affectation. We just don’t speak the same way we write.

      “It is a sad indictment of our pathetically bloodless culture that you can characterise passionate, poetic, polemical language incandesecent with imagery and bursting with life as ‘bizarre’.”

      In the supposed situation of its genesis, as spoken word, then it is bizarre. Now in John having possibly composed this then you’ve given a perfectly valid reason why it could be so, but that won’t fly in cases where there is actual conversation, which I’ll look at in the next post. And the point is that these are the actual words they actually said, and not a poetic approximation of what might have happened. These are the words that dogma is created from, not a soliloquy given to an unseen audience.

      None of my complaints – a wayward star, a king with stupid plans, the Holy Spirit being a lousy tour guide, artificial sounding characters – are knockout problems with believing in Matthew. The problem is that they exist at all and are so easy to find in a story that, from my angle of analysis, is a record of what really happened. I know I’ve been unclear in the purpose of these posts and for that I apologize, but unfortunately that because I’m making them up as I go along and had no clear thesis when I started except that I wanted to read the Gospels.

      Reply
  2. Marco

    I’m not really invested in seeking out claims made in the bible, to check their veracity. Nor am I interested in the New Testament as a historical account. However, I feel I should involve myself in this argument mainly because the bible has stood the test of time as a “best seller” despite the shortcomings in the narrative of the New Testament. It is the very fact that the word is unchanging over generations despite wholesale changes in society and society’s perception of truth and knowledge is a feature and not a flaw in the text. The important thing is the lessons that can be passed on using the text as a reference that is key here. The lessons will not always be the same even based on the same passages, but the polemic style makes passages associated with the lesson easier to remember and pass on. It is a little like catch phrases in Star Wars. In fact the “space opera” classification of movie borrows a lot from the style of the bible.

    Reply
    1. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

      I never realised before, but what Marco is saying here about the link between the Bible and Star Wars is spot on. George Lucas was steeped in Joseph Campbell’s ideas about the nature of myth and was consciously trying to embody them, while the biblical stories are their archetypal embodiment in Judaeo-Christian culture.

      Reply
      1. winstoninabox Post author

        “I never realised before, but what Marco is saying here about the link between the Bible and Star Wars is spot on. George Lucas was steeped in Joseph Campbell’s ideas about the nature of myth and was consciously trying to embody them, while the biblical stories are their archetypal embodiment in Judaeo-Christian culture.”

        While I agree that the Bible stories are archetypal, it’s not a connection I’d push very far. Star Wars is action-orientated entertainment and has broad messages like the power of friendship, belief in the good, etc. whereas the Bible doesn’t entertain via spectacle or excitement and has quite specific messages. But yes, the characters in both a painted with fairly broad strokes.

        Reply
      2. Marco

        The dialogue and spiritual themes in Star Wars, which covers all of the character development, comes off to me as distinctly stilted and unrealistic, almost as if the story had been written from memory with the dialogue being true to the mythos more than true to how humans actually interact. It is also incredibly clear to the observer who is good and who is evil while the characters are completely oblivious even though they have the same information. It is a real wonder how disbelief is suspended and I can only suspect that our training from a biblical tradition is the reason it can be suspended so.

        Reply
    2. winstoninabox Post author

      “However, I feel I should involve myself in this argument mainly because the bible has stood the test of time as a “best seller” despite the shortcomings in the narrative of the New Testament.”

      I wonder if it is the best selling book in the world that no one actually reads? Some of the strange points in the story I’ve written on hardly seem to be discussed at all, yet I think are important in deciding if these stories are factual accounts. It’s like people know the stories so well that they actually don’t to have to read them. Like when you tell people that Sherlock Holmes took drugs, Frankenstein is not the monster, or that Dracula could walk in the daylight, they are amazed to find out something fundamental that they didn’t know about a story that they thought they knew.

      Reply
      1. Marco

        Other “best sellers” like recipe books or self help books are like that too in that the more a book is a bestseller, the more it gets into the hands of people who just don’t read very much. Certainly, if a book is explaining how a meal is to be cooked or what excercises you need to do, or what to preach at your next sermon, simple time constraints will mean you just read the bits you have time to “practice”, and a lot of these connecting bits that just stitch the story together between practical instruction will get glossed over.

        Reply

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