August 23, 2009

Matthew's Composition Process

This is far too rough for what it attempts, but it's the best I can do at this time so I'm posting now. Feel free to tear it apart. :-)

If we apply Johnston Cheney's chronology of the Gospels to events in Matthew, we find 1:1 through 8:13 fits the larger timeline with nothing out of sequence whatsoever (except 3 verses near the end). The same is true from Matthew 12:45 to 28:20 (except the alabaster night in Bethany). But what is interesting is that 12:46 picks up on the timeline very shortly after 8:13 left off. In other words, if 8:14-12:45 wasn't there, Matthew would be virtually perfect when compared to Cheney's chronological sequence.

Let's call the above three sections MA, MB & MC. Our first significant observation is that MB is only 17% of Matthew's text. Excepting MB, the other 83% of Matthew's Gospel follows the sequence almost perfectly. That aside, MB itself is still a complete jumble, sequentially. Working from Cheney's chronology, almost everything in MB belongs to the timeline for MA or MC. In other words, it's a hodge podge of flashbacks and flash forwards that never presents itself as such. In fact, there is only one event in MB that fits in the larger event sequence between MA & MC, which is basically the summer of 30 AD.

That exceptional MB event is the occasion when John's disciples deliver his doubts to the Lord. Interestingly, the first major event of MC, the passage on John's death that begins chapter 14, is the only straightforward flashback in Matthew's entire Gospel. Since that flashback begins by referring back to 4:12, the last major event in MA, it begins to look as if Matthew's strategy in composing the midsection of his Gospel reserved special preference for the ongoing narrative about John the Baptist. We will keep this in mind.

Analyzing MB more closely, we can subdivide and sub-label its material chronologically:
* 36%, MB1, belongs between 13:52 and 14:1
* 27%, MB2, belongs between 4:23 and 5:1
* 21%, MB3, aligns with material from Luke's travelogue
* 11%, MB4, is the exception passage, about John
* 03%, MB5, is unique to the gospels (11:25-30)
It may be helpful to note that the passages in MB1 and MB2 are heavily event-based, woven together as individual threads, each still in sequence to the larger timeline. MB3 is largely non-event-based teaching material, selected and inserted with no discernible pattern. MB4 falls very near the middle of MB, about where it would belong if MB (or the entire Gospel) was completely re-sequenced to the overall timeline. And MB5, for the moment, remains a beautiful, fascinatingly context-less enigma.

We also see that MB2 fits into Cheney's chronology just before the Sermon on the Mount and MB1 belongs just after the long teaching section of chapter 13. In fact, the entire jumble of MB, excepting the travelogue bits, fits into the timeline between 4:12 and 14:1. We might call this the "expanded MB", whose alternating segments of teaching and event based episodes covers everything in Matthew's Gospel that goes between John's arrest in the spring/summer of 29 AD and John's beheading in the winter/spring of 31.

Viewing this expanded middle, it seems Matthew has jumbled the events of his own first two summers with Jesus and purposefully re-arranged that material while enhancing the more didactic parts of the same section with additional sayings of Jesus (from the travelogue). This complex arrangement is very odd, but extremely non-random. Everything that isn't 'supposed to be there' was deliberately stolen by the author from one of three specific windows of time. The MA parts of MB remain sequential unto themselves, but are woven together sporadically with the early MC parts, which also remain in sequence unto themselves. Almost separately, the narrative thread about John provides a chronological anchor for the entire mid-section.

Can such a complex pattern reveal any simple compositional strategy? Perhaps.

The simplest explanation for MB2 is that Matthew wanted to slide the Sermon on the Mount as close to the front of his Gospel as possible, which clearly befits his larger themes and 'political' purpose in writing. On this theory, the author's first major edit was cutting the MB2 material from its chapter 4 context. Then he had to decide whether to 'delete' it or 'paste' it elsewhere.

It is far more difficult to imagine what motivated the MB1 edit, unless Matthew decided or somehow realized a larger jumble was more justifiable than one large, glaring discrepancy. Whatever motivated the next major edit, it seems early MC was transposed with MB1. Then MB1 and MB2 were interwoven in overlapping style, alternating at their most natural breaks. MB4 stayed in the MB section not equidistant from 4:12 and 14:1, but well spaced enough to keep the spine of the major plot line in development.

Finally, the lack of a pattern for Matthew's MB3 and MB5 portions actually makes sense because these portions of text are primarily snippets that supplement passages of similar tone and content. The most likely explanation here is that Matthew had already finished his gospel when he decided to go back and insert extra material in his possession, wherever it seemed appropriate.

In conclusion, it must be acknowledged this all depends on presupposing Cheney's blended event sequence from all four Gospels, and that Matthew knew precisely that sequence and tried keeping to it at first. This entire argument would probably be stronger if it were re-worked directly from the basis of comparative sequence, rather than simply following Cheney. (But hey, gimme time!)

Having said that, any careful reader must also acknowledge that the timeline of Johnston Cheney does provide a surprisingly clean view of compositional structure, sequence and chronological awareness in Matthew's Gospel.

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