Synoptic Gospels

NEW BOOK: Catherine Hamilton’s, The Death of Jesus in Matthew (Cambridge University Press)

One important recent contribution to Matthean studies is Catherine Sider Hamilton’s, The Death of Jesus in Matthew: Innocent Blood and the End of the Exile, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 167 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017). I would like to share a few thoughts about it here.

This monograph was a real eye-opener for me. I never realized how prominent the theme of innocent blood is in Second Temple literature. Moreover, even though I knew it was found in Matthew, I did not realize how important this motif is there as well.

For one thing, the theme of innocent blood appears in a number of places in the First Gospel.

Let us begin with Jesus’ words in Matthew 23. Jesus issues seven woes against the scribes and Pharisees. In the seventh and climactic indictment, Jesus introduces the notion of righteous blood:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and adorn the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say: If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been sharers with them in the blood of the prophets. 31 Therefore you witness against yourselves that you are the sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you escape the judgment of Gehenna? 34 For this reason, behold, I send to you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them will scourge in your synagogues, and pursue from city to city: 35 so that upon you will come all the righteous blood [pan haima dikaion] poured out on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel [tou haimatos Abel tou dikaiou] to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Amen I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation.

Matt 23:29-36; my translation

Hamilton shows that Jesus’ words in these verses fit well within the Jewish mindset of Jesus’ day. Over the course of a couple of chapters, she surveys numerous texts which indicate that the shedding of innocent blood “on the earth” will lead to divine judgment.

Furthermore, it is not at all coincidental that Jesus specifically names Abel in Matthew 23. Hamilton shows that Cain’s act of fratricide in Genesis is frequently alluded to in ancient Jewish works. I must admit that I had no idea how important the death of Abel was in Jewish imagination until I read Hamilton’s book! Her discussion of this in The Death of Jesus in Matthew is an important contribution to scholarship on its own.

Particularly fascinating to me was Hamilton’s treatment of 1 Enoch. For example, in the Greek version of 1 Enoch 9:1-3 we read:

Then Michael and Sariel and Raphael and Gabriel looked down from the sanctuary of heaven upon the earth and saw much blood on the earth []. All the earth was filled with the godlessness and violence that had befallen it. And entering in, they said to one another, “The earth, devoid (of inhabitants), raises the voice [phōnē] of their cries to the gates of heaven and now to <us>, the holy ones of heaven, the souls of men make suit, saying, ‘Bring in our judgment to the Most High, and our destruction before the glory of the majesty, before the Lord of all lords in majesty.

1 Enoch 9:1-3; translation from George W. E. Nickelsburg and James C. VanderKam, 1 Enoch: The Hermeneia Translation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 26.

As Hamilton points out, the imagery here is evocative of the story of the death of Abel (cf. p. 58). There the LORD says to Cain,

“What have you done? The voice [phōnē ]of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the land []” (Gen 4:10).

LXX Gen 4:10; my translation

In 1 Enoch, the flood judgment is, at least in some part, linked to the Abel story.

Moreover, Hamilton demonstrates that in 1 Enoch the flood is a kind of prototype for other cataclysmic events that are triggered by sin such as the exile. Hamilton uses the language of “blood-flood” traditions as a shorthand way of describing the connections between such events.

Remarkably, in the eschatological discourse, Jesus concludes by describing the last days before the final judgment in terms of Noah’s flood (Matt 24:37-39).

For just as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of man. 38 For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, 39 and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

Matt 24:37-39; my translation

In addition, in Matthew 23, Jesus also mentions the pouring out of the blood of Zechariah, whose death is recorded in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22:

And the Spirit of God clothed Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, and he stood above the people, and said to them: “Thus says God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the LORD so that you cannot succeed? Because you have forsaken the LORD, he has also forsaken you.” And they conspired against him, and stoned him with stones at the commandment of the king in the court of the house of the LORD. Thus Joash the king did not remember the steadfast love which Jehoiada his father had shown to him, but killed his son. And when he died, he said, “May the LORD look upon it, and may he avenge it.”

2 Chron 20:20-22; my translation

In 2 Chronicles, this event gives way to the exile. The death of the righteous Zechariah, then, is portrayed as the trigger for the judgment of the deportation in 2 Chronicles.

Moreover, when Joash dies at the hands of his servants it is attributed to is “blood” guilt:

. . . his own servants conspired against him for the blood of the sons of Jehoiada the priest, and killed him on his bed, and he died.

2 Chron 24:25; my translation

In a fascinating chapter, Hamilton explores the way the story of Zechariah’s death gets expanded in later Jewish sources. One important account is found in the first-century work, Lives of the Prophets:

Zechariah was from Jerusalem, son of Jehoiada the priest, and Joash the king of Judah killed him near the altar, and the house of David poured out his blood in front of the Ailam [=the porch of the temple]; and the priests took him and buried him with his father. 2 From that time visible portents occurred in the Temple, and the priests were not able to see a vision of angels of God or to give oracles from the [Holy of Holies], or to inquire by the Ephod, or to answer the people through Urim as formerly.

Lives of the Prophets 23:1-2; OTP 2:398.

This account includes some elements that are not found in 2 Chronicles. Strikingly, these extra details find some remarkable parallels in Jesus’ speech in Matthew 23.

  • Like Jesus, Lives of the Prophets tells us that Zechariah was killed in the vicinity of the altar.
  • Lives of the Prophets omits any mention that he was stoned and, like Jesus, focuses on the “pouring out” of Zechariah’s “blood.”
  • As in Matthew 23, the shedding of Zechariah’s blood represents an act that requires a reckoning. In particular, in Lives of the Prophets, the silence of the prophets and the absence of oracles from the Lord after Zechariah’s death point to the notion that God has withdrawn, leaving Judah vulnerable to invasion and exile.

From all of this, it seems clear that Matthew was aware of the some of the emerging traditions about Zechariah’s death attested in later Jewish texts.

Of course, the theme of innocent blood is not limited to Matthew 23. It appears frequently in the latter chapters of the Gospel.

In Matthew 27, Judas returns the money he received for betraying Jesus, announcing:

“I have sinned by handing over innocent blood [haima athōon].”

Matt 27:4; my translation

The chief priests then refuse to put the money in the temple treasury:

And the chief priests took the silver coins, and said: “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury because it is the price of blood. 7 And after taking counsel, they bought with them the potter’s field as a tomb for strangers. 8 Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.

Matt 27:6-8; my translation

The theme of innocent blood picks up again later in the same chapter. Matthew reports that Pilate’s wife suffered dreams on account of Jesus and instructed her husband to “have nothing to do with that righteous man” (Matt 27:19). In this, Jesus’ innocence is stressed. Pilate, however, shamefully relents and gives in to crowd’s demands, handing him over to be crucified. Once again, the theme of innocent blood returns:

When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but that a riot was developing instead, he took water, and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this righteous one: see to it yourselves.” 25 Then answered all the people, and said, “His blood be on us, and on our children.”

Matt 27:24-25; my translation

This passage contains a verse that has sadly been used to justify anti-Semitism. Some have read it as indicating that a curse has been permanently placed on all Jewish people. Yet this is certainly not what the text means. As Hamilton shows, the scene in Matthew 27 is likely best read as pointing to the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. According to Matthew, Jerusalem’s demise at the hands of the Romans is the result of the fact that the innocent blood of Jesus was spilled there.

Jesus’ execution represents the shedding of innocent blood on the earth par excellence. The consequence of this is signified by the tearing of the temple veil at the moment of his death (Matt 27:51). It is also tied to cosmic events (e.g., the darkness) which foreshadow the end of the world.

Hamilton, however, here raises an important question: How in all of this is Jesus portrayed as fulfilling the mission attributed to at the start of the Gospel: “he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21)?

To answer this, Hamilton turns to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper:

And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink of it all you; 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Matt 26:27-28; my translation

On the basis of this passage, Hamilton argues that the shedding of Jesus’ blood is thereby not only portrayed as the cause of the coming destruction of the Jerusalem, but also as what brings about forgiveness and the end of the exile.

Yet she takes this one step further. Just as the tearing of the temple veil symbolizes the negative aspect of Jesus’ death, so too, she argues, is its redeeming dimension indicated in Matthew’s account of the crucifixion. For immediately after recounting how the temple veil was torn, Matthew also ties Jesus’ death to the resurrection of the dead:

And the tombs [mnēmeion] were opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And they came out of the tombs [mnēmeion] after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, appeared to many.

Matt 27:52

Among other things, Hamilton points out that here we have an echo of Matthew 23. The very tombs that Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees for hypocritically honoring are now opened; the righteous that were killed are now raised.

What is more, Jesus’ death is linked to the return of the dead (the exiles?) to the city of Jerusalem. In this, Hamilton makes the case that Jesus’ death is described as anticipating not only Jerusalem’s destruction, but also restoration. In fact, she shows that judgment is typically understood as a kind of cleansing.

In addition, Hamilton sees great significance in the fact that Matthew 27 describes the saints returning to “the holy city.” This, she believes, indicates Jerusalem’s cleansing by the death of Jesus. On this point, I still need more convincing. Matthew earlier identifies Jerusalem as “the holy city” in Matthew 4. I am not sure, therefore, that much can be hung on this designation of the city in Matthew 27.

Nevertheless, aside from minor quibbles, I believe Hamilton’s work represents a significant contribution to Matthew research. The book is marked by clear thinking and crisp writing. Her work on the “blood-flood” matrix sheds important light on various other Jewish works and demonstrates that Matthew describes the implications of Jesus’ death in a decidedly Jewish register. For me, this book has prompted much reflection on aspects of Matthew’s narrative I had not fully considered before. I heartily recommend it to anyone doing serious study of the Gospel of Matthew.

One comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: