The authenticity of Mtw 12:2-3
Pp Mark 8:11-12
The demand for a sign
He left them
[Note - This passage, with a few differences, is a similar one to that of Mtw 12:38-40 and retains a lot of similar wording. The reader who wishes to learn about the ‘sign of Jonah’, of the Pharisees’ irrelevant and unbelieving demand for a sign and of what it showed about the character of the religious movement should turn to that first web page.
Here, I intend attempting to deal with that which is original and different]
This four verse passage has all the hallmarks of a bridging incident that could have been recorded between 15:39 and 16:5 to mask out an indeterminable length of time that could have stretched out into several weeks of ministry to the region of Galilee.
By just noting that the Pharisees and Sadducees came to him (Mtw 16:1), there’s no indication - just as there isn’t in Mark - that the event occurred ‘immediately’ they landed on the western shores of the Lake or that it was ‘as they were going ashore’ that they were approached by the religious leaders.
However, Matthew 16:4’s statement that
‘...[Jesus] left them and departed’
and His arrival on ‘the other side (Mtw 16:5) would indicate that the journey took place almost immediately after the request for a sign. My note on the previous page that this took place in Magadan, therefore, is purely speculative but the inference of the concluding words of the previous chapter cause this region to be the most likely for the setting.
Certainly, we’re looking at a place in Jewish territory for it would be unlikely that we would find the Pharisees approaching Jesus while He was ministering to Gentiles or while journeying through the predominantly Gentile territory of the Decapolis (Mark 7:31ff) because of the fear of contracting ceremonial defilement.
Mark’s parallel passage is somewhat different but not irreconcilable with Matthew’s text, the main difference being the omission of Mtw 16:2-3 in his record. He also mentions only the existence of the Pharisees as coming to Jesus but we shouldn’t take this statement as being one which is asserting that only that religious group came.
Mark’s note that Jesus refused to perform any sort of sign is an indication that He refused to give the leaders the sort of sign which they had come to request - perhaps ‘demand’ is a better word - but Matthew points out that Jesus reminded them of His previous response to a request by pointing out that Jonah would stand as the sign which they were eager to receive - but, as previously noted, the sign would be one which would seal their own condemnation rather than give them an opportunity to believe in the One they’d flatly rejected for, in its fulfilment, also was contained the demonstration and outworking of their final rejection.
The Authenticity of Mtw 12:2-3
There’s quite some discussion amongst commentators as to the authenticity of Mtw 12:2-3 in the original Gospel manuscript seeing as it’s not included in most of the manuscripts which are considered to be the most reliable (though they are fairly well attested in a wide range of other manuscripts which are not accepted as being of equal importance in determining the original wording). Therefore Mattask observes that because
‘...Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus and the old Syriac version [though the Aramaic version of Matthew on the Internet retains both verses as original, I note]...’
all omit the words (Mathen notes that the Coptic texts also miss these verses), there’s a strong case for their inclusion to be regarded as a later insertion by a copyist, going to cite McNeile who states strongly that
‘The manuscript authority is decisive against the genuineness of the passage’
If we were to accept that the verses were no more than a scribal addition, the text would run something like
‘And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Him they asked Him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah”. So He left them and departed’
which would harmonise it fairly well with Mark’s record of the event. Mtw 12:39, however, where the Pharisees, along with the scribes, first ask Jesus for a sign would be seen to be virtually identical where Jesus’ response is recorded as
‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah’
The problem is a difficult one to resolve but I can’t help but feel that objections to the two verses being accepted rely more on the assumed authority of the manuscripts which omit them than upon any logical consideration of the work of the copyist and the problems which they faced in their work of transmitting the text faithfully to their own generation.
But a few observations need to be considered here to give us at least a brief background to the arguments both for and against its inclusion.
Mattask, quoting Lagrange, writes that
‘Nothing can explain the addition by a copyist of this penetrating and delicately ironical observation’
not even Matfran’s observation (the author opts for the verses’ exclusion) that the two verses were
‘...perhaps inspired by Luke 12:54-56 where different weather signs are used in a similar way’
because, if this was the case, the text wouldn’t be a bleed over from one remembered text into another but of a totally different series of meteorological observations (in Luke, Jesus is recorded as speaking about a cloud rising and the south wind blowing) and, in the opinion of Matmor (and agreed by Mathag)
‘...there are significant differences in wording’
somewhat of an understatement, I hasten to add!
It isn’t just that a phrase from another place is being remembered and written by the scribe but that something totally original and unique is being recorded here and inserted into a text that bears not even the slightest hint that the weather is in mind and that such an analogy would have been warranted.
Mathen offers the explanation that the reason why the verses could have been omitted from the Coptic (that is, Egyptian) texts or, perhaps better, those texts originating in Egypt as being copied there, is because the same weather conditions referred to here are not relevant signs in that land. This is quite a poor proof when it’s thought about, however, for we might as well assume that manuscripts of Egyptian origin would also omit other passages where nothing that was particularly relevant to the land of copying would have been removed, and this doesn’t appear to have been the case. He is correct to note, however, that
‘Since it is easier to explain the omission of these verses than their addition, the conclusion that they were probably authentic is warranted’
Matmor, quoting Ridderbos, sees that
‘To explain how they could have been added...would be as hard as to explain how they could have been omitted’
but it seems better to accept from a natural consideration of the matter that it’s easier to believe that something dropped out rather than something unique and original was added to a text which appears nowhere else in the Gospels and which was considered to be authoritative amongst the Church. As Mattask comments - and this appears the most likely explanation for their omission in some manuscripts (though it may not be the right one!)
‘On the assumption that the passage is genuine, its omission in some manuscripts could be readily explained by an early copyist retaining in his memory what he had written in 12:38-39 and jumping without thinking from 16:1 to 16:4...’
It seems best to accept these two verses, therefore, rather than to reject them but such a position does throw doubt onto the authority of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, something which the scholarly and academic world would be unwilling to do.
Finally, if we do accept the authenticity of Mtw 12:2-3, we would, I feel, need to accept that they dropped out of the copies which were made at a very early date rather than to see them as a result of a much later copyist’s error.
I think it a fair justification to note that, if it’s asserted that the reason many manuscripts don’t contain Mtw 15:2-3 is because their origin is in Egypt where the signs were different, the commentator should at least go on to prove with some certainty that the weather conditions are particularly relevant in the land of Israel where Jesus is recorded as uttering them.
Indeed, as Matthew is the only one who records such a statement which is supposedly uniquely relevant to the land of Israel, it seems fair to take their inclusion as an indication (and no more than this) that the person who compiled Matthew was possibly using manuscripts that were originally intended or originally written for the use of the predominantly Jewish Church of the land.
Either way, it’s important that we try to be certain about the accuracy of the weather predictions that Jesus is here citing - something which, I must admit, is not very easy to do! Most commentators ignore the meteorological conditions almost entirely while Mathag simply asserts (my italics) that
‘[Jesus] alludes perhaps to a popular weather proverb concerning the signs in the sky that could be interpreted to predict the weather that would follow...’
but has neither Rabbinic source nor modern evidence to support its accuracy. Mathen comes the closest to meteorological ‘evidence’ when he writes that
‘They knew that in their country a bright red evening sky was a frequent indicator of a clear tomorrow, the cloud masses and mists having moved to the west [sic - this should be east]...On the other hand when, during the night, the wind, coming from the west, that is, from the Mediterranean, had driven clouds and vapours across the country, so that at dawn the eastern sky [or should this be western?!] was a brilliant red mixed with threatening bands of darkness, they knew that a rainy or stormy day might well be in the offing...’
It would appear that the meteorological information would confirm such a phenomenon in general (though there’s always the chance that what was expected could quite easily blow over or change direction and not arrive). The sun rising in the east, would light up the western sky by its shallow rays, indicating the arrival of a moist weather front in the immediate future whereas, the sun setting in the west would light up the eastern sky’s moisture thus showing that the tail end of the weather front was removing itself from the land.
Without further reliable information, this appears to be all that can be said about the statement and that the sentence was a current proverb (as Mathag) is possible but by no means certain seeing as there appears to be no source which would indicate even one of the two statements made here.
Incidentally, I’ve contacted the Jerusalem Post situated in Israel to ask them whether the saying holds true for the land in the present day for Galilee but am, at the present time, awaiting a reply - unfortunately, I couldn’t find any ‘Israeli Meteorological Office’ on the web which would have been much better to contact, I know.
Here in the passage, the same sign interpreted in different ways can mean different things - so, too, the miracles that Jesus has been performing in their midst. To the religious leaders, it’s sure evidence that the power of Beelzebul is being demonstrated (Mtw 12:24) while, to the ordinary men and women, the indications are that this could be indicative of the expected Son of David (Mtw 12:23).
It isn’t that the ‘red sky’ of the miraculous isn’t a sign but it’s what kind of sign the miracle is supposed to be taken to be.
However, although this is applicable to the situation, this isn’t the reason for Jesus’ mention of the different signs in the sky.
Rather, they’re mentioned simply to show the Pharisees and Sadducees that earthly matters seem discernible by themselves and yet, even though they’re representatives of God, they’ve failed to interpret the spiritual significance of the miracles and deliverances which have already been performed in their midst.
We shouldn’t think of two alternative interpretations by the mention of the two signs but that they’re both brought to the religious leaders’ attention simply to show them that their perception of earthly matters should be matched by a spiritual one - which, of course, it wasn’t.
Jesus’ condemnation is all the more shocking because it’s being directed at the religious leaders who should have had the perception to understand that the miracles which are being brought to bear in people’s lives are evidence that the dawning of the Kingdom of God has come. However, their interpretation of the current signs in their own time is lacking clarity and truth, having their hearts hardened towards the movement of God within their own generation.
One final word needs to be said about the phrase ‘the signs of the times’ which is used in Mtw 16:3. Matfran notes that
‘It is interesting that this dubious text [that the inclusion of Mtw 16:2-3 is dubious - see above] is the only NT occurrence of the phrase “signs of the times”, often used today in relation to eschatological predictions but here referring to discerning the significance of Jesus’ earthly ministry...’
This phrase has nothing to do with the time immediately before the return of Jesus to set up a visible Kingdom. Rather, it has to do with spiritual perception in the present to interpret correctly those things which are being done and which point towards the reality of the Kingdom of God coming into both areas and people’s lives in power.
As such, it’s a wrong label to put on the projection of what must take place at some future date, seeing as it must refer to what is occurring in the present.
The demand for a sign
The Pharisees hadn’t realised that their demand for a sign wouldn’t be met, even though they’d received the reply from Jesus previously (Mtw 12:38-40) and so they repeat their expectation that Jesus is obliged to give them a clear and unmistakable sign ‘from heaven’. But such a demand for a sign doesn’t find justification and is purely self-condemnatory for it demonstrates their unwillingness to accept the miracles which had already been performed and which pointed towards the fact that the Kingdom of God was in their midst and being established wherever God’s will in liberating people was being done.
This passage, although a repeat of the request for a sign, helps us to see three specific aspects of the Pharisaic and Sadducean mentality which we’ll look at here briefly before moving on.
Firstly, they show themselves to have ulterior motives even though, at face value, they appear to be concerned for the things of God. Notice in Mtw 16:1 that the writer records for us that they came to ask for a sign ‘to test Him’. Mark is the more blatant in his record of their approach, mentioning (Mark 8:11) that they’d come to ‘argue with Him’ rather than to discuss and reason about the implications of what was being done in Israel. This may be too strong a translation by the RSV for Kittels notes that the word was employed to mean ‘discuss’ and it may have been translated ‘argue’ simply because the context seemed to require it.
However, the fact that they’d come to test Him shows that any sincerity in their request for a sign from Heaven was lacking - they were doing it simply to prove to themselves that Jesus wasn’t the One that the other signs were proclaiming Him to be. The Pharisees and Sadducees coming together here for the purpose of approaching Jesus is certainly strange for they were diametrically opposed to one another and even showed healthy resentment for the other religious party. But, in Christ, they both recognised someone who was a threat to their own power base and security and they therefore unite in an attempt to discredit Him. The scribes and Pharisees previously (Mtw 12:38) were batting on the same side but, when two enemies come together for the sole purpose of an assault against a common foe, you know that their identified enemy is viewed as a very real danger (see, for instance, Joshua 9:1-2).
They’d come, therefore, to tempt Jesus to reveal His Messiahship so that they could find ample grounds to condemn Him like they had already done (Mtw 12:24) - the Sadducees, being the more politically based group, more like some form of spiritual aristocracy (it was from this group that the High Priest was chosen by the Roman Empire), who were allied more closely to the Roman ruling authority, were possibly present in case anything Jesus said could have been used as a weapon against Him before those rulers, though the Pharisees enlist the help of the Herodians for this very purpose at a later date in Jerusalem (Mtw 22:15-16). Mark’s record that Jesus spoke about the ‘Herodians’ [I have taken the marginal version of the RSV rather than accept the translation as ‘Herod’ in the text] in Mark 8:15 immediately following this incident where Mtw 16:6 uses ‘Sadducees’ may be indicative that that they were closely allied to the Roman ruling authorities so as to be considered to have a foot in both camps. The Herodians have previously appeared in Mark 3:6 but, in Matthew, don’t appear until Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for the final Passover before the crucifixion (Mtw 22:16).
And, if Jesus didn’t give them a sign, they could condemn Him also for not being able to prove that the authority by which He was doing the great miracles was from God.
The ‘sign of Jonah’ centred in the resurrection of Jesus from the grave (Mtw 12:40), but the Sadducees refused to believe in a resurrection of the dead whereas, for the Pharisees, this was a central belief. If they fully understood the implications of this sign (Cp Mtw 12:40 with Mtw 27:62-64) then it would have divided whatever union existed between them in their approach and in their efforts to destroy Jesus (see also Paul’s use of the resurrection theme to cause havoc in the ranks of the Pharisees and Sadducees when he perceived that the people who stood before him were a mix of both religious parties - Acts 23:6-9).
Therefore, when the event took place, not only would it prove to be evidence which condemned the Pharisees’ rejection of Jesus seeing as it concluded their total repudiation of Jesus’ claims (as noted here) but it could not be believed by the Sadducees without denying their fundamental beliefs. The sign, inevitably, became to both sets of religious leaders, no sign at all.
Secondly, the Pharisees had asked Jesus for a sign after another sign. Although there are just two incidents recorded for us, the fact that they repeated their request when they had already been told that their request would go unanswered (Mtw 12:39) shows not only a lack of faith in the miracles which were being done but a lack of faith in Jesus’ words.
The previous demand for a sign had occurred after a Messianic miracle had been performed by Jesus (Mtw 12:22-23) and after their reaction had been to proclaim that it was done by the power of satan (Mtw 12:24).
Here, although we can’t be certain that any incident had taken place immediately before their request and which pointed towards who Jesus was, He had given a clear indication that God was with Him on two occasions - one of which was done before Jews - when food provision was multiplied beyond any possibility of it happening naturally and without divine assistance (Mtw 14:13-21). If anything, it had to at least show that Jesus was on an equal standing with Elisha who had performed a similar miracle in the OT (II Kings 4:42-44).
Even so, the scribes and Pharisees had still opposed Jesus and the disciples (Mtw 15:1-2) showing their lack of faith in Him. If the Pharisees were unable to believe what they had already seen, there was very little that Jesus could ever have done which would have convinced them of His mission from God.
Therefore, it’s not without some justification that Jesus (Mark 8:12)
‘...sighed deeply in his spirit...’
for He realised the unbelief that was being displayed even though He’d been with them so long and had been performing signs and miracles openly in their midst.
Thirdly, and following on from the last point, their request for a sign showed that they had no spiritual perception even though they were raised up over the nation of Israel as religious leaders and guides. Jesus levelled the charge at them that, although they could perceive natural matters, they had no spiritual insight to be able to discern properly what was happening in their midst through Him (Mtw 16:3).
Natural phenomenon many may judge but spiritual perception can only be accurately performed by those who have their eyes wide open to the movings of God. What the leaders had seen in Christ (the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed and the dead being raised) was ample evidence that the Kingdom of Heaven had come to earth (prophesied, for instance, in Is 35:5-6) but they couldn’t, through their own persistent hardening of their hearts (Mtw 13:14-15), perceive that these signs showed that the time of Messiah had come.
Everything that was happening might be very interesting but it chipped away at the foundations of the power structure in which they operated, pulling dependency upon their own ‘way to God’ down and raising up a routeway that was simply a matter of acceptance rather than religious works, based upon God turning towards believers with mercy rather than granting them their due wages.
The ‘signs of the times’, as has been previously noted, were the proof that the age of the Messiah and of His Kingdom had come. But they couldn’t perceive that what was being demonstrated was a direct move of God in their midst.
We would do well to note that, even though we bear the label of being alive to the things of God, it’s all too easy to find ourselves closing our eyes to a new move of God because it begins to threaten or undermine our own perceived way of doing things before God.
The reader is probably sick of me writing about the way the people who experienced the prior move of God were the ones who became the persecutors of the new move throughout Church history, but it’s something of which we must constantly remind ourselves in case we find ourselves in the very same position and become Pharisaical in our outlook.
Our attitudes towards the new move can become insincere by our attendance at meetings where we are present simply to get to the bottom of what is being manifested in their midst - we can demand of God a spiritual sign in those meetings which would prove to ourselves that the move is from Him and we can refuse to accept the tangible evidence of God’s presence because we have already categorised the movement as being not sent by God.
But the believer is called upon always to be ready for God to move and to run with Him - not to view with cynicism anything which He chooses to do outside of his own denominational experience.
He left them
Matthew simply records (16:4) that, following the request for a sign, Jesus
‘...left them and departed’
and it isn’t until the following verse where we read that they
‘...reached the other side...’
that there’s the indication that, firstly, their escape from the presence of the religious leaders was possibly by boat seeing as this phrase is used elsewhere to indicate such a method of transport (Mtw 18:18,23, 14:22) and that they were concerned not to stay any longer in Galilean territory but to depart once more away from the land. Mark 8:13 confirms this mode of transport and records that Jesus got
‘...into the boat again [and] departed to the other side’
thus concluding what appears from both Gospels to have been the briefest of visits into Galilee near Magadan before they depart once more away from the area.
We have previously been concerned to note that there were two reasons recorded for Jesus’ initial withdrawal away from Galilean territory, neither of which appears to be the reason for their departure here.
Mtw 14:1-2,13 showed us one reason in that Jesus perceived that Herod Antipas was beginning to regard Jesus as a resurrected John the Baptist and so was giving Him increasingly unhealthy attention. A withdrawal outside His territory seemed a natural and logical necessity if He was to hinder Herod’s possible future attempts at arresting Him as he had done with the Baptist previously (Mtw 14:3).
However, also aware that the disciples needed some rest from the ministry in which they were being used (Mark 6:31), it was expedient that Jesus take them apart to a place where there would be few crowds, that they might find time to rest.
Although, initially, this hadn’t worked (Mark 6:33), their withdrawal into the regions of Tyre and Sidon soon saw a reduction in the ministry being given (Mtw 15:21) and their journeying back to Galilee via Sidon, possibly Caesarea Philippi and then on to the area known as the Decapolis (Mark 7:31) would have made this possible (though a time of ministry to the Hellenistic regions which were predominantly Gentile opened up for them).
Here, however, their withdrawal seems to be tied in with the pressing need for a sign that the religious leaders bring to Jesus once more. Certainly, in the subsequent teaching which Jesus brings to the disciples (Mtw 16:5-12), He shows that He’s acutely aware that the Pharisees and Sadducees’ teaching is a dangerous object against which they need to be clearly warned.
Perhaps, then, Jesus perceived the storm clouds which were already beginning to show the first signs of rain as He journeyed away eastwards once more and away from the land over which they held jurisdiction. His travellings in the tetrarchy of Philip until the opening of Mtw 17:22 is a good indication that Jesus had decided to remove Himself from their attentions until the time came for travelling southwards towards Jerusalem to attend one final Passover at which He would be crucified (Mtw 17:22, 19:1).
It’s in this period that Matthew records Jesus’ first open confession to His disciples that His life will terminate in His violent death in the capital city (Mtw 16:21). Previously, His declaration of the ‘sign of the prophet Jonah’ (Mtw 12:40) - although definitely expecting an interpretation which would speak of His death - failed to hint at the significance of the religious leaders’ role in it.
From now on, however, Jesus is preparing His disciples for something which they could not possibly have expected would befall the Messiah when they first came to acknowledge Jesus as the One long awaited.
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