Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Provocative Possessive Pronouns in Matthew

This essay began when I was struck by an unexpected use of a plural possessive pronoun ("their") modifying synagogue (Matt 10:17), when the simple article, "the," would have been sufficient. There is no antecedent specifically identifying who these "owners" of synagogues are. In the immediate context "they" (Matt 10:17), that is, those people and "their synagogues" appears to be the "wolves" in 10:16, a rather harsh term for those who are Jews themselves to use for other Jews (Ioudaioi), who worship in synagogues. The possessive pronoun is provocative because it immediately calls attention to the other group in Matt 10:17 ("you") whom the Jews allegedly will flog in "their synagogues"; this group is unnamed, but in the larger literary context it is possible they are the twelve whom Jesus sends forth (Matt 10:5) with his instructions in Matt 10:1-11:1. There may be another possibility, however.

The use of the possessive "their," for those who gather in synagogues, is odd because Jesus and his disciples were also Jews and attended synagogues. The possessive pronoun (their) and the designation of Jews as wolves, on the other hand, suggest that Jesus and his disciples are in no way identified with the synagogue, which is obviously not the case in first-century Palestine. They also attended synagogues. By using the third-person possessive pronoun to modify synagogue, the author of Matthew has evoked for the reader another shadowy group who does not identify with the synagogue but who consider themselves over against those who gather in synagogues. Here is the rationale for this statement: If you say an object is "theirs," it implies an ownership not shared by the one who speaks.

The use of this pronoun without clarification raises the question, who is this group that is not identified with the synagogue? Has Matthew deliberately evoked them, or is it simply an accidental verbal slip? Has Matthew inadvertently, momentarily, let slip aside his cover as a (theoretically) neutral describer of earlier events and opened for readers a window into events current in the author's own later time, as happens at Matt 28:15 (and Matt 11:23 and 27:8): "And this story is still told among the Jews to this day (italics mine). That is to say, the story is still being told in Jewish communities in the author's own later lifetime, but it is not being told by those in the author's different community.

The word "synagogue" appears in Matthew's Gospel a total of 9 times.1 Out of 9 times Matthew modifies synagogue by the third-person possessive pronoun "their" a total of 5 times and once by the second-person plural possessive pronoun "your" (23:34). Mark, on the other hand, uses a possessive pronoun to modify synagogue only twice (1:23, 39) out of eight uses. Luke uses a possessive pronoun with synagogue only once (4:15) out of fifteen uses with synagogue. John uses synagogue only twice, both times without a possessive pronoun. In Acts, Luke uses synagogue 19 times, none of which are used with a possessive pronoun but he does modify synagogue with a prepositional phrase as the "synagogue of the Jews" (Acts 13:5; 17:10). James uses synagogue once with the possessive pronoun "your" (2:2).

Possibly the use of the possessive in "their synagogue" might allude to Jews in a specific geographical location. For example, if the possessive pronoun "their" modified synagogue in connection with the village of Capernaum, "their synagogue" would likely be the synagogue of the Jews who lived in Capernaum, as happens in Mark 1:21, 23. But no named villages are mentioned in Matthew with respect to any of the passages where Matthew writes "their synagogue." There are two unspecific general regional locations, however, in Matt 4:23 ("throughout Galilee") and 9:35 ("all the cities and villages"). Another general location sets-up a contrast in an area where Jesus was brought-up (Matt 13:54) in which "they" have "their synagogue." That is to say, there was a synagogue in the general area of Jesus' own part of the country (patris). This passage (Matt 13:54-58) sets up a negative contrast between the people of the synagogue and Jesus. The synagogue folk were quite familiar with the family of Jesus (Matt 13:55-56), yet what he said "astounded" them, and they became "offended" at him for what he said in "their synagogue" (Matt 13:54).

If one will allow that Matthew has inadvertently allowed his/her cover to slip and thereby evoked another religious group competing with the synagogue of the Jews in his (Matthew's) day by modifying synagogue with the third-person possessive pronoun "their" rather than an expected "the," how might this group be characterized? Apparently, they did not think of themselves as Jews, for synagogues are worship centers for Jews: the force of the pronoun is that "Jews use synagogues; we don't." This other group apparently used the anachronistic term "church" (ekklēsia, is usually translated as "church"), which turns up three times in Matthew. Matthew apparently conceived this later term as a worship gathering, which was not so used in Jesus' lifetime, to contrast with "their synagogue" at 16:18 (18:17 twice).2 Matthew even describes the term in connection with a few early community rules (18:17) of the later formal Christian ecclesiastical order (18:15-22).

Relationships between the church and synagogue in Matthew's later day appear less than cordial. The group represented by Jesus' church ("my church," 16:18) and who worship Jesus' Father ("my Father"),3 viewed those of the synagogue negatively, effectively replacing them as the people of God (Matt 21:43; 8:10-12). Jesus was sent to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" (10:5-6; 15:24). The people of Jesus will in the end-time judge the twelve tribes of Israel (19:28). Matthew chapter 6 contrasts the people of the synagogue (6:2, 5, 16; 23:2-7) with the followers of Jesus (6:3-4, 6-15, 17-18; 23: 8-12). The people of the synagogue and the leaders of the Jewish people are excoriated and execrated for their behavior in Matt 23:13-36. And the Judean mob at Jesus' trial before Pilate audaciously accepts the blame for the death of Jesus (27:24-26).

Read in this way Matthew's Gospel reveals hostile relationships between the church and the synagogue in Matthew's day in the period from 80 to 100 CE when the Gospel of Matthew was likely written.4

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1With possessive pronoun: Matt 4:23; 9:35; 10:17; 12:9; 13:54; 23:34; without possessive pronoun: Matt 6:2, 5; 23:6.

2In Jesus' day, and even in the later time of Paul, the term ekklēsia should be more loosely translated as "gathering." The term "church" does not appear in Mark, Luke, or John.

3My Father: Matt 7:21; 10:32-33; 11:27; 12:50; 16:17; 18:10, 19, 35.

4Werner G. Kϋmmel, Introduction to the New Testament (rev. ed.; from the 17th German ed.: SCM, 1975), 119-120.

1 comment:

  1. Charlie,
    I thought it was interesting that in most of the time Matt used “synagogue,” whether “their” synagogues or the synagogues in general, the portrayal of the synagogue is negative, generally speaking of “hypocrites,” the home crowd (once) and/or the plot to kill Jesus.

    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.