Jesus and the Demons – Matthew 8:28-34

There are several significant different between much-abbreviated exorcism story in Matthew and the parallel story Mark 5:1-21 and Luke 8:26-40. Luz concludes Matthew “has omitted so many details from his Markan source that one can hardly ask why in each individual case” (Luz, Matthew, 23).

  • First, the location is the country of the Gadarenes rather than Gerasenes. This matter is complicated by textual variants, the Alexandian witnesses for Matthew has Gadarenes, the majority has Gerasenes; but that is reversed for Mark and Luke.
  • Second, there are two demon possessed men rather than one.
  • Third, the description of the demon’s strength is more brief and the demon does not identify itself as Legion.
  • Fourth, the men identify Jesus as “Son of God” rather than “Son of the most high God” (Mark 5:7; Luke 8:28).
  • Fifth, Mark and Luke say Jesus gave the demons permission to go into the pigs, in Matthew he commands them with the word “Go.”
  • Finally, although the locals beg Jesus to leave the region, Matthew omits Jesus’s conversation with the formerly demon-possessed man (Mark 5:18-20; Luke 8:38-39).

Does this miracle happen in “the country of Gadarenes or Gerasenes? Gadara and Gerasa are two different places with very similar names in Greek, and the name for the traditional site is Gergesa. All three names appear in the textual tradition, although Gerasenes is probably correct based on the parallel stories in Mark and Luke.

The traditional location of this miracle is Gergesa, known also as Kursi, is on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. This identification dates to Origin and Eusebius, although Eusebius recognizes the problem of Matthew’s Gadara. By the sixth century Christians built a church at the site and several caves on the cliffside were used by monks. Nolland suggests this identification was made because the place has cliffsides near the Sea of Galilee.

Gadara (“hot springs”) is a territory south of the Yarmuk River about five miles from the Sea of Galilee, but the region may have extended to the Sea. The modern village of Umm Qais is associated with Gadara. Gadara was part of the Decapolis after Pompey (63 B.C.) although it was a Hellenistic city long before that time.

Cliff where demon posessed pigs leapt into the sea

The confusion may have been caused by the fact Gerasa (modern Jerash) is 37 miles from the short of Galilee, the tombs would not be associated with that city, and the distance is too great for the pigs to run into the sea. In my view, Kursi may very well be the location, but it is impossible to be dogmatic on this issue.

Why does Matthew say two men were among the tombs? Mark and Luke tell the same story with only one demon possessed man. There are a wide range of possible solutions to this problem.

  • Donald Hagner, for example, suggests the extra man was added as a reference to the Jewish tradition of two witnesses (Matthew, 1:225).
  • Following D. A. Carson, Mike Wilkins suggests Matthew had independent knowledge of the second man (Matthew, 353; Carson, “Matthew,” 217).
  • Others suggest that since Matthew omitted Mark’s reference to Legion (“for we are many”) he interpreted “Legion” as a reference to more than one possessed man.
  • One intriguing suggestion is Matthew added the extra man in order to bring the number of people healed in chapters 8-9 to twelve (Green, Matthew, 102. Cited in Davies and Allison, 2:80).
  • Rudolf Bultmann suggested Matthew had a fondness for doubling things (History, 316).

As with the location of this exorcism there are several other possibilities, likely the comments will offer other suggestions!

Why are they “among the tombs”? On the one hand, this may simply be a result of the oppression of the demons. However, the location highlights Jesus’s willingness to go into areas of uncleanliness from the perspective of the Pharisees. He enters a Gentile region and enters a cemetery in order to heal two demoniacs.

Are these men Jewish or Gentile? Jeannine K. Brown suggests they are Jewish because Jesus focused his ministry on the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Brown and Roberts, Matthew (THCNT), 90). When Matthew describes a Gentile who expresses faith in Jesus it is always in contrast to the lack of faith among his own people (the centurion in 8:5-13, for example).

If these are Jewish men, then they are in a state of maximum impurity: demon possessed, living among the tombs in a Gentile region near a pig farm.

Jesus Has Authority Over Creation – Matthew 8:23-27

The story of Jesus calming the sea is one of those classic Sunday School stories, perfect for flannelgraph time. Yet there is far more to this story than our childhood memories might recall. In some ways, this story is still about discipleship. After rejecting two disciples who are not able to commit themselves to Jesus’s high standard of discipleship, we now learn that even the disciples who were willing to leave family and reputations behind and got in the boat with Jesus have “little faith” in who Jesus really is. That is the second thread in this brief story, Jesus is the God who commands the seas and silences the winds and waves. But there is a third, darker thread to this story. The storm is not a normal storm, this is a satanic attack on Jesus, something which becomes clearer when he arrives on the other side of the lake and encounters two demoniacs (Matt 8:28-34). Jesus will silence demons in the same way he silences the storm in 8:23-27.

Jesus Calms the Sea

Matthew has an abbreviated version of the story found in Mark 4:35-41. Mark mentions other boats were with Jesus’s boat and that Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat. The words of the disciples are omitted, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” and Jesus’s words rebuking the storm are also omitted (“Peace, be still”). Although Jesus’s words to the disciples are slightly different the gist is the same (they have little faith). Luke 8:22-25 is quite similar. Instead of “teacher” the disciples call Jesus Master (ἐπιστάτης, twice) and he adds the phrase “they were in great danger.” In all three versions Jesus and the disciples reach Gerasenes (or Gadarenes in Matthew) and encounter a demoniac (or two, in Matthew).

After hearing he is about to leave Capernaum and go to the other side of the lake, two would-be disciples approach Jesus (8:18-22). Jesus responds to them with enigmatic sayings which show how difficult it is to be a true disciple of Jesus.  Jesus then gets into the boat with his disciples to cross the sea. These are presumably his true disciples, the beginnings of the twelve. Jesus does not appoint the twelve until chapter 10.

First, Jesus falls asleep and a great storm threatens to swamp the boat. First, Jesus is asleep in the boat during a violent storm and needs to be awakened (v. 25).  In Matthew 20:8 the same word will be used for raising the dead. This may be an indication of total exhaustion. As a human Jesus was exhausted by a long day of teaching and healing and simply was worn out. In the other hand, Jesus is so confident that he will not be killed crossing the lake that he is able to lay down and sleep in the presence of his enemies (the chaos of the sea, cf. Psalm 3:5-6).

Second, this should be a short trip across the lake, a trip the disciples have made many times. The Sea of Galilee is not a large lake and early evening boat trip cutting across the lake would be faster than a crowd could follow. In addition, the will land near the Gentile region of Decapolis where a Jewish teacher is unlikely to draw a huge crowd. This trip should take about two hours, but because of the storm it well into the night before the disciples decided to wake Jesus from his sleep.

Third, this is not just a normal bad storm on the Sea of Galilee. In the Old Testament, a raging sea is often used as a metaphor for the enemies of God. In Daniel 7:2 a series of nations rise from the raging, churning sea, nations who all oppress God’s people. Even in Genesis 1:2 the Spirit of God hovers over the chaotic, formless and void waters before God imposes order on the chaos in the days of creation. Matthew says the storm is a violent storm (σεισμὸς μέγας), Mark and Luke describe it as a “furious storm” (λαῖλαψ), a word used only in Mark 4: and Luke 8:23 (and 2 Peter 2:17, false teachers are driven by strong winds).

The Disciples are Terrified (8:25). The storm is so great the disciples are terrified. Presumably at least four of these men are Peter and Andrew, James and John, men who were raised in Galilee and were used to fishing on the lake at night.

The disciples fear they are about to die because of this storm, so the awaken Jesus and call him to save them from the storm. The disciples address Jesus as Lord (Κύριε). The second would-be disciples also called Jesus Lord, although it not clear he meant anything more by this than a respectful title. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says not everyone who calls him Lord will enter the kingdom of Heaven (7:21).

They say to Jesus “Save us!” Although Christians are used to hearing “saves” in the context of personal salvation (Eph 2:5, 2:8 for example), the word is common in the Old Testament when someone is crying out to the Lord to be rescued from some real-life danger.  For example, Psalm 3:7. “Arise, O Lord! Save me,” the LXX uses κύριε, σῶσόν με, virtually the same phrase as Matthew 8:25. The reason David’s enemies have risen up against him, his son has rebelled against him and his life is in real danger. Psalm 3 concludes with the line, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” It may be a coincidence, but in Psalm 3:5 the psalmist is so confident in the Lords salvation that he lays down and sleeps and is sustained by the Lord when he awakens even though he is surrounded by his enemies.

Remarkably Jesus calls his disciples cowards! The word δειλός is a rare in the New Testament, used here and in the parallel story in Mark 4:40. The word can have the sense of fearfulness but is used for timidity and cowardice (BrillDAG). It is rare in the LXX, used in Judges 7:3 for the men who were afraid of the upcoming battle, similar to 1 Macc 3:56. In 2 Chronicles 13:7 it is used to describe the “certain worthless scoundrels” who supported Jeroboam. Depending on how you want to hear these words, Jesus could be calling out his disciples for being timid (having little faith) or calling them a bunch of cowards!

In either case, the problem is they lack confidence in Jesus to protect them from this unusual storm. In Mark 4:38, the disciples say “don’t you care we are perishing,” in Matthew they call out to Jesus to save them from certain death.

Jesus then rises and rebukes the winds and the sea, resulting in “great calm.” To rebuke someone is to silence them. Jesus rebukes demons and orders them to be silent, but he also rebukes his disciples. When Peter sought to correct what he took to be Jesus’s misunderstanding about his role as messiah (the word rebuke is used), Jesus rebukes Peter (Matt 16:22).

After he rebuked the sea, there was a “great calm” (γαλήνη μεγάλη). “Calm” is an unruffled surface on a body of water (BDAG); it is a “dead calm.” The word is used as a metaphor for tranquility or serenity (BrillDAG). Whatever the storm was like (supernatural chaos), this is the exact opposite, a supernatural calm.

What is the Point of this Story? Following Mark, Matthew presents Jesus as the God who controls the seas. The sea was considered by most ancient cultures to be a place of chaos that only the gods can control. But in the Old Testament God is the one who controls the seas.  For example, Psalm 89:9 describes God as ruling the raging of the sea and the waves.

In Psalm 89:8-10 and Job 26:12-13 Rahab refers to a primordial sea dragon. Although this is a terrifying and powerful creature, God slaughters it completely. The sea is a dangerous place which threatens to destroy God’s people. Just as God controlled the chaos of the waters in Genesis 1:2, he unleashed that chaos at the time of the flood.

Jesus rebuked the winds and the seas, a clear allusion to Psalm 107. The Psalmist describes God as “rebuking the Red Sea” when he brought Egypt up out of Egypt. Psalm 107:29, the Lord himself calms the sea, 107:25-27 describes the terrifying storm, in vs. 28 they cry out to the Lord in their trouble; vs. 29 the Lord stilled the sea, the storm was waves were hushed, the waters are quiet, and the Lord brought them to their desired haven (v. 30).

The sea was considered by most ancient people to be a place of chaos, only the gods can calm the chaos of the sea. Psalm 89:8 indicates God controls the sea and calms the waves. In the Psalms, the writer often describes himself as drowning in deep waters, only God can rescue him (Pss 18:16; 69:2, 14–15).

By calming the sea, Jesus reveals who he is to his closest disciples, but they do not fully understand at this point who he is.

Let the Dead Bury the Dead – Matthew 8:21-22

Jesus’s response to a would-be disciple is one of the more difficult sayings in the Gospels. This man expresses a desire to follow Jesus but asks to go and bury his father first. Jesus’s response, “let the dead bury the dead” has generated a bewildering number of explanations.


This person is called a disciple, so it is possible he is one of the large group of people who are following Jesus in Galilee. Hearing that Jesus is about to leave Capernaum, he declares his intention to follow Jesus.  Luke 9:57-61 has the same request, except Jesus initiates the contact by telling the man to “follow me” who then he asks to go and bury his father. After telling him to let the dead bury the dead, Jesus says “But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Once again Matthew has the briefer form of the tradition.

His reason for a delay seems legitimate: He wants to go and bury his father. Jesus’s response seems rather insensitive assuming the man’s father has died and needs to be properly buried. Burying the dead was an important act of kindness, as illustrated by the book of Tobit.

Since Jesus’s response seems harsh, there have been a wide range of suggestions for explaining what “let the dead bury the dead” meant. See Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:56-57 for a list of these suggestions, I will only highlight a few.

First, Is the man referring to ritual uncleanliness associated with burying the dead? Burial of the dead made a person unclean for a period of time. Leviticus 21:1-3 indicates the immediate family was responsible for burying a dead person. Jesus could be saying something like, “that business can take care of itself, you have more important work to do” (Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus, 162). John Nolland suggests this could be paraphrased, “Let other arrangements be made; you have more pressing duties” (Matthew, 368).

Second, is the father even dead? The man may be asking to stay at home until his father dies and he can take his inheritance. After he takes care of the legal business at home, he will follow Jesus. However, Kenneth Bailey suggested a Middle Eastern reader would think the man’s father is still alive and the disciple will stay at home until his father has died and he has done everything required by the cultural burial practices (Through Peasant Eyes, 26). If the father were really dead at that moment, he would have been at home taking care of the burial process not trying to follow Jesus.

Third, Donald Hagner suggested Jesus is speaking metaphorically: let the spiritual dead bury their physically dead relatives (Matthew 1:218). This is certainly possible since Peter will later claim to have left everything behind to follow Jesus (Matt 19:27). But Jesus does not describe outsiders as “spiritual dead” nor insiders as “spiritually alive.”

Whatever the reason for the request, Jesus tells this would-be follower to “let the dead bury their own dead.” This is shocking: Jesus is demanding his followers leave behind their family responsibilities in order to follow him. Jesus is not telling the man to break the fifth commandment, honor your father and mother, but he does warn this would-be disciple that following Jesus will require him to leave behind family and friends. In fact, by the end of Matthew 12, Jesus has re-defined his followers as brothers and sisters, “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:46-50.

Did this man follow Jesus?

The Son of Man has Nowhere to Lay His Head – Matthew 8:18-20

Matthew 8:18 is a transition between the three healing stories in Capernaum and the three stories loosely concerned with following Jesus. First, two would-be disciples approach Jesus and Jesus responds with rather difficult, enigmatic sayings. Second, Jesus demonstrates his authority of creation itself, yet his own disciples have “little faith.”  Third, Jesus demonstrates his authority over demons, and a whole town demands he leave their region. In 9:1, Jesus crosses the lake again and returns to “his own town” Capernaum.

Following Jesus

Luke 9:57-61 has close parallels to these two would-be disciples, but adds a third who wants to return home to say farewell to his family, evoking Jesus’s well-known saying, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” In the first case, Luke does not identify the mane as a scribe (he is “someone,” τις).

A scribe approaches Jesus and expresses his desire to become a follower of Jesus. A scribe (γραμματεύς) usually refers to someone who is clerk or secretary, someone who can read and write and is trained in dealing with official documents. However, in Matthew the scribes are usually experts in the law, or the biblical scholars. The scribes were who people would look to for answers about how to interpret and apply the Law to a specific situation.

This scribe ought to call to mind the summary statement at the end of the Sermon on the Mount; Jesus taught “as one who had authority, not as their scribes” (οὐχ ὡς οἱ γραμματεῖς αὐτῶν).

The scribe addresses Jesus as “teacher” (Διδάσκαλε, rather than ῥαββί, רַבִּי) and says he will follow Jesus wherever he goes. This is the way a student might ask a rabbi to enter into a formal discipleship relationship. Nolland suggests the man sees Jesus as an important somebody with whom he would like to be associated (Nolland, Matthew, 365).

In contemporary academia, someone has more gravitas if they did their doctoral work at a top-notch university or had an academic star as their thesis advisor. Sometimes even taking a single class with a particularly famous scholar is enough to boast about. (Michael Bird once asked me for directions in the book room at SBL, and I put that on my resume.)  Perhaps this scribe wanted to pad his resume by sitting under Jesus’s teaching for a few months.

But this is not the kind of disciple Jesus is looking for. Prior to the Sermon on the Mount Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow him and they immediately abandoned their business (fishing) and followed him (Matt 4:20). That is the kind of followers Jesus demands, in contrast to the scribe who is looking for a traditional rabbi/teacher-student relationship.

The response contrasts the type of discipleship the scribe might expect with Jesus’s unusual demands on his disciples.  This is the first time in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus has identified himself as the “Son of Man” (there are a total of 28 Son of Man sayings in Matthew). Although the phrase does appear in Ezekiel (always God referring to the prophet as a human), it is more likely the title is drawn from Daniel 7:13-14. After a series of kingdoms, Daniel sees a son of man who comes before the Ancient of Days to judge the final kingdom and establish his own everlasting kingdom.

Even what Jesus means by the title is ambiguous, since sometimes he uses it in the context of his role as the suffering servant (20:18; 20:28; 26:2) and other occasions it refers to his role as the king in a future judgment (25:31, 26:64).

In this case, the Son of Man has a humble ministry among the poorest in Israel. He says the animals have place to live, but the “Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” If Son of Man alludes to the Jewish expectation of a David-like king who would rule over Israel in peace and prosperity, it would be shocking to hear he has no “place to lay his head.” Perhaps this alludes to David before he became king, running from King Saul, although there is no exact parallel to this saying in 1 Samuel or the Psalms.

T. W. Manson argued “birds of the air” were apocalyptic symbolism for the gentile nations and foxes were the Ammonites (Manson, Sayings of Jesus, 72). In Luke 13:32 Jesus calls Herod Antipas “that fox.” Manson suggests Jesus means something like, “everyone is welcome in Israel except true Israel (the Son of Man).” Bailey suggests political overtones in the saying, “The Son of Man stands powerless and alone. Are you serious in wanting to follow a rejected Son of man?” (Through Peasant Eyes, 25).

Certainly, Jesus is not homeless in the modern sense of the word. In fact, he will return to “his own town” in Matt 9:1 and live in Peter’s house in Capernaum. However, following Jesus is not like following a traditional rabbi; becoming a disciple of Jesus is to become a “scribe of the kingdom” (13:52) who sells everything he has in order to obtain the kingdom (13:44-46).

Followers of Jesus are the disenfranchised, the poor and the fringes of Israel, not the Herodians or the Temple aristocracy. Jesus does live a life of voluntary poverty and he does have an itinerant ministry that takes him all over Galilee and Judea. But his point here is that he not welcomed by the “in group.” Yet he will be welcomed by sinners (9:10-13).

Jesus is therefore telling the man that following him as a disciple is not likely to result in a traditional scribal role (Decent salary? Benefits? Comfortable perks of the job?). In fact, if someone wants to follow Jesus, they must be rejected by the other scribes and teachers of the Law, challenged by the Pharisees and he must be prepared to suffer along with him. Following Jesus will lead to Gethsemane and Golgotha (Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 24).

Did the man follow Jesus? Davies and Allison think he was not a “friendly inquirer who is (implicitly) bidden to follow Jesus. On the contrary, the scribe, we are to think, is turned away” (Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:41). On the analogy of the rich man who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit the kingdom, perhaps this scribe went away from Jesus disappointed with the answer he was given (Matt 19:16-30).

Jesus Heals Peter’s Mother in Law – Matthew 8:14-16

Peter’s mother-in-law has a fever and is perhaps suffering from malaria or some other disease. Jesus heals her on the Sabbath and she begins to serve him.

Christ Healing Peter's Mother in law, John Bridges

First, if Peter have a mother-in-law, then Peter was a married man. In Matthew 19:27 Peter says he has left everything to follow Jesus, including his house and wife. However, 1 Corinthians 9:3-5 implies Peter was married when Paul write that letter.

Second, what illness was his mother-in-law suffering? The verb πυρέσσω and the cognate verb πυρετός are rare in the New Testament and the only the verb appears in the LXX in Deuteronomy 28:22 where translates the Hebrew noun קַדַּחַת (qaddaḥat). This kind of fever is associated with the curses for covenant unfaithfulness and only appears elsewhere in Leviticus 26:16.

Matthew’s version of Mark 1:29-34 is briefer and omits the fact this occurs on the Sabbath. Luke 4:38-41 also sets the healing on the Sabbath, but Jesus does not touch her hand, but rather rebukes the fever. Luke adds the fact she was tormented (passive participle of συνέχω) with a high fever (πυρετῷ μεγάλῳ). Compare this to the father of Publius in Acts 28:8, he was suffering with dysentery.

Davies and Allison point out the connection between a fever and demonic activity in the Testament of Solomon 7. In this apocryphal story, Solomon questions the demon Lix Tetrax who describes himself as causing fevers which last for a day and a half.

Testament of Solomon 7.5–6 “I create divisions among men, I make whirlwinds, I start fires, I set fields on fire, and I make households non-functional. Usually, I carry on my activity in the summertime. If I get the chance, I slither in under the corners of houses during the night or day. I am the direct offspring of the Great One.” 6 I asked him, ‘In which constellation do you reside?” He replied, ‘Toward the very tip of the horn of the moon when it is found in the South—there is my star. Therefore, I was assigned to draw out the fever which strikes for a day and a half.

However, there is nothing else in the story to imply this woman was under demonic oppression. Perhaps an outsider might have considered the possibility she had a demon, but that is not at all the point of this story.

After she is healed, she immediately serves him (Jesus). On the one hand, this may refer to her returning to her role as a hostess for a Sabbath meal for an honored guest. But on the other hand, this is the first person in Matthew’s gospel who serves Jesus. As Donald Hagner comments, “She ministered to him in grateful response to what he had done for her—a fundamental aspect of discipleship: (Hagner, Matthew, 209).

Walter Wilson recently suggested Matthew re-worked this story to recall Elisha and Shunammite woman’s son (2 Kings 4:18-37). He points out the healing of the leper in Matthew 8:1-4 alludes to the healing of Naaman, a gentile military officer with leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-14). When Elisha entered the house, he there was a child lying dead on the bed; when Jesus entered the house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in the bed.  In both cases, the women serve the prophet (2 Kings 4:16; Matt 8:14).

Wilson and others who draw parallels to Elisha are likely correct. Just as the Sermon on the Mount drew comparisons to Moses as Israel’s lawgiver, these miracles draw comparisons between Jesus’s healing ministry and the two greatest prophets from Israel’s history.

But there is more here. The first three miracles in Matthew 8 concern people who would be excluded from worship at the temple and would certainly not be the sort of people expected to express faith in a Jewish teacher like Jesus.

That evening, many are healed (8:16). In the parallel story in Mark 1:29-34 Jesus was in the synagogue on the Sabbath and returned to Simon and Andrew’s home when he healed Peter’s mother-in-law.

Matthew concludes these three healing stories by declaring Jesus fulfills Isaiah 53:4 (Matthew 8:17). The verse is part of the four “Servant songs” in Isaiah, the most significant is 52:12-53:12. Matthew’s quotation here follows the LXX, which has the gist of the MT.

Isaiah 53:4 (ESV) Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.

Isaiah 53:4 (LES2) This one carries our sins and suffers pain for us, and we regarded him as one who is in difficulty, misfortune, and affliction.

How does Jesus “take up” illness? In the first century, sin and sickness were often connected. This is more clear in Matthew 9:1-8 when Jesus forgives a paralyzed man’s sin, prompting the teachers of the Law to accuse him of blasphemy.

Bibliography: Wilson, Walter T. “The Uninvited Healer: Houses, Healing and Prophets in Matthew 8.1-22.” JSNT 36 (2013): 53–72.

Who are the “Many Who Come from the East and West” in Matthew 8:10-12?

In Matthew 8:10-12 Jesus draws a contrast between the “sons of the kingdom” who will not participate in the eschatological feast and those who will. The ones who do recline at the table with Abraham are “many from the east and the west.” Just who the many who enter the banquet and sit at the head table in the eschatological banquet has been a matter of discussion in recent scholarship.

Great Feast Abraham Beyeren

Since Jeremias, the majority opinion is that the included “many” are believing Gentiles and that the excluded “sons of the kingdom” are unbelieving Jews (Jesus’ Promise to the Nations, 51). Jeremias gives five features of Jesus’ view of the eschatological pilgrimage of the Gentiles (57-60). First, God reveals himself to all humanity (Isa 2:2; 40:5). Second, God calls everyone to Zion (Isa 45:20–22). Third, the journey of the Gentiles to Zion, from Egypt and Assyria (Isa 2:3, 19:23). Fourth, the nations will worship at the “world–sanctuary” (Isa 56:7, 66:18). Last of all is the messianic banquet on the world–mountain (Isa 25:6–8). Matthew 8:11 is, for Jeremias, an interpretation of Malachi 1:11 highlighting the in–gathering of the Gentiles (62).

In a 1989 article, Dale Allison challenged this consensus opinion by arguing the “many from the east and the west” are Jews from the Diaspora rather than Gentiles replacing Jews at the eschatological feast. While he does not interact with Allison’s article, John Nolland argues a “re–application of the gathering of Israel to the gathering of the Gentiles is to claim too much.” Jewish eschatological thinking always allowed for Gentile participation in the Jewish eschatological gathering. (Matthew, 357).

Allison points out there is no text in the Hebrew Bible or the Second Temple Period, which describes Gentiles as coming from the east and west. Isaiah 59:19 describes a pilgrimage from the east and west when the Redeemer comes to Zion for those in Jacob who have turned from transgression. Psalm 107:3 describes Israel coming from the east, west, north and south. Philo (Spec. Leg. 1.69) uses this language (“from the east and west”) to describe the return of Diaspora Jews from Alexandria and Babylon to Jerusalem for festival days. For other texts describing a pilgrimage from the “east and west, north and south.” (See LXX Ps 106:2–3 [ET 107:2–3], Isa 43:5–6; Zech 8:7–8, 1 Enoch 57:1).

Psalms of Solomon 11 combines the gathering of the children of Zion (PsSol 11:2, cf. Isa 52:7; 54:1–4) with the voice of one bringing good news to Zion.

Psalms of Solomon 11.1–4 Sound in Zion the signal trumpet of the sanctuary; announce in Jerusalem the voice of one bringing good news, for God has been merciful to Israel in watching over them. 2 Stand on a high place, Jerusalem, and look at your children, from the east and the west assembled together by the Lord. 3 From the north they come in the joy of their God; from far distant islands God has assembled them. 4 He flattened high mountains into level ground for them; the hills fled at their coming.

The Zion is to clothe herself with garments of glory (PsSol 11:7, cf. Isa 52:1) because the way through the wilderness has been prepared by leveling the path and turning the desert into paradise (PsSol 11:4–5, cf. Isa 40:4, 41:17–18). This pilgrimage only concerns Jews scattered throughout the world as they return to Zion and Jerusalem.

Allison also argues that even if there is an allusion to an eschatological pilgrimage of the nations to Zion in Matthew 8:11, it cannot be assumed that the original hearers would have thought of this pilgrimage as universal salvation of Gentiles (163). Allison cites several Second Temple Period texts which show that the Gentile pilgrimage in the future will be one of judgment, not salvation. As early as Ezekiel 39 the nations come to Israel, but instead of finding salvation at an eschatological banquet, they are utterly destroyed and become the food for the banquet (Ezek 39:17–20).

Allison is correct that at least some streams of Second Temple Period Judaism did not envision a future conversion of the nations, but rather their destruction. The source for this diversity is the ambiguity is the foundation eschatological banquet text, Isa 25:6–8. In fact, this is the only text in the Hebrew Bible which may connect the pilgrimage of the nations to Zion with the messianic feast. In every other text, the nations travel to Zion to pay homage to the God of Israel, but the feast is celebrated only by Israel. Allison concludes that Jesus would not have turned the metaphor of the messianic banquet upside down by replacing Israel with the Gentiles. Rather, he was indicating that the Jews who thought they ought to be sharing in the messianic banquet will be replaced by other Jewish guests, perhaps even those from the Diaspora (165).

While agreeing with many of Allison’s points, Michael Bird nevertheless maintains that the consensus view is essentially correct (“Who Comes from the East and the West?,” 441–57). Bird points out the book of Isaiah has both a “pilgrimage of the Gentiles” (Isa 2:2–4) and an eschatological banquet (Isa 25:6–8). Allison does not think Jesus’ audience would have read the two texts together since there is no pilgrimage and conversion of the nations in the eschatological feast.

Following Craig Keener, Bird points out that Jesus and other Second Temple Period thinkers frequently read Isaiah synthetically. “Even if he drew on only a single text, [Jesus] understanding of that text would be informed by the others” (Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 270, n.26). Similarly, Warren Carter is convinced Allison is correct about inclusion of the Diaspora but does not see this as a non–inclusion of the Gentiles (Matthew and the Margins, 203). The context of Matthew 8:8–10 is the compelling factor for Carter. Matthew has placed this saying into a context which highlights Gentile conversion.

If it was only Matthew inserting the saying into the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant, then perhaps Bird and Carter have a valid point. But the literary unit of Matthew 8–9 should be considered as a whole. This section is a series of miracles and conflict stories between two teaching sections (Matt 5–7 and 10).  In this larger section Jesus comes into contact with various outsiders: a leper, the demon–possessed, tax collectors, the blind and lame, as well as a Gentile. The faith of the Gentile centurion stands as part of a series of events which demonstrate that Jesus extends mercy to the outsiders.

In fact, there is nothing in Matthew 8:5–13 which anticipates the Gentile mission which would have been the case when Matthew finally wrote his Gospel. If Matthew were creating a story to show that Jesus was extending salvation to the Gentiles, then Jesus should have shared a meal with the Gentile as he did the (Jewish) tax–collectors and other sinners in Matt 9:9–13. That the centurion knows it is not lawful for Jesus to enter his home may imply that this man was a God–fearing Gentile not unlike Cornelius (Acts 10:28). Luke describes the Centurion as a patron of the Synagogue at Capernaum (Luke 7:4–5).

When read within the context of Matthew’s gospel, this saying about an eschatological banquet does not so much refer to geographical Diaspora Jews, but rather a sociological Diaspora. An additional factor is the placement of the saying in Luke 13:29, where there is no hint of Gentile salvation in Luke. In fact, read within the context of Luke–Acts, the “many from the east and west” are in fact Diaspora Jews gathered at Pentecost who hear the preaching of the Apostles and receive the Holy Spirit.

In summary, this saying is an explicit reference to the eschatological banquet. But Jesus expands the banquet to include people on the fringes of the Jewish life. The saying is less about a future banquet than Jesus’s ongoing ministry of table fellowship. Only a chapter later, many do in fact come to sit with Jesus and celebrate with him as a bridegroom (Matt 9:9–13).




Jesus Heals the Centurion’s Servant – Matthew 8:5-13

Jesus returns to Capernaum, Peter’s village, where is met by a centurion asking him to heal his servant who is suffering greatly (Matthew 8:5-6). Like the story of Jesus healing the leper in the previous paragraph, Jesus will cross cultural barriers by responding to this Gentile’s request.

Centurion's Servant Healed

Jesus left Nazareth and began to live in Capernaum (Matthew 4:13), likely living in Peter’s home (8:14). He will return to the village in 11:23 and 17:24. The modern route from Nazareth to Capernaum is about 30 miles, but the way drops from 1138 feet at Nazareth to 680 feet below sea level at Capernaum (at current lake levels). In the first century Capernaum would not have been very large, perhaps no more that 1700 residents. The village is right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and there is evidence of at least seven docks for fishermen. There is also evidence of a small synagogue under the impressive fifth century building modern tourists visit.

Having finished the Sermon on the Mount Jesus walked to the shore of the Sea of Galilee where Peter and his family lived. From the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount to Capernaum is perhaps three and a half miles by the modern road, less if Jesus is able to take a more direct route.

The centurion is a Gentile, but it is at least possible he is a God-fearing gentile. Was there a Roman garrison in Capernaum in the first third of first century? This is often stated, but rarely proven. Mike Wilkins, for example, states “recent excavations reveal a military garrison at Capernaum had its headquarters to the east of the Jewish village” although he does not offer a footnote for this recent excavation (Wilkins, Matthew, 341).

There is little evidence for Roman military presence in Galilee prior to AD 44 (Wahlde, “Archaeology and John’s Gospel”). In the 1980s a Roman bathhouse was found near the eastern border of the village, right on the property line between the Franciscan and Orthodox properties. At present, the bathhouse is dated to the second or third century (it is similar to small bathhouses in Gaul and Britain from the period), but the excavators suspect an earlier bathhouse was present when the later was built.

Why would a typical Roman soldier think a Jewish healer would have this kind of authority? If he is simply a pagan Roman centurion, he may have tried all other methods, both medical and divine, to heal his servant. If he was a God-fearing Gentile, then he may have had faith in the God of Israel to heal. In either case, he had heard Jesus was known for healing all kind of illness and approaches on behalf of the servant. The point of the passage is that a Gentile expressed more faith than the Jews in the region, especially the Pharisees.

The centurion approaches Jesus and shows unusual respect for him. The verb translated “asking for help” (NIV) or “appealing to him” (ESV, NRSV) is προσκυνέω, “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure” (BDAG). It can mean anything from “greet with affection” or “welcome respectfully” to “worship (like a god).” Although it is unlikely the man is worshiping Jesus like a god, it is significant Matthew has chosen this word to express the centurion’s attitude toward Jesus. This Gentile considers Jesus worthy of respect and honor.

His request is simple: heal my servant. It is possible to translate the noun παῖς as “servant” or “son.” In fact, John has son (υἱός), but Luke has “servant” (δοῦλος). It may be the case that the ambiguity of παῖς led to the different terms in Luke and John, and it is also possible the servant was so beloved by the centurion he considered him as a son. (See this post from Ian Paul for the suggestion the servant was the centurion’s gay lover. Dwight Gingrich points out the noun “παῖς (pais) usually carries no sexual connotations whatsoever.”)

In either case, he is paralyzed and suffering greatly. The verb translated “suffer” (βασανίζω) refers to extreme distress and is used for torture in some contexts. Matthew adds the adverb “greatly (δεινῶς), “an extreme negative point on a scale relating to values” (BDAG). When your doctor asks you how bad your pain is on a scale of one to ten, the servant’s pain goes all the way to eleven.

Jesus is willing to go to the servant and heal him, but the centurion knows a Jewish person would not enter the home of a Gentile.For example, in Acts, Peter initially refused to enter the home of Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile who was so godly that the Lord sent an angel to personally answer his prayers. In Acts 10:28 Peter says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.”In the Mishnah, m Ohol. 18:7, “Dwelling places of gentiles [in the Land of Israel] are unclean.”

The centurion says he is not worthy (οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανός) of a visit from Jesus in his home. Instead, the centurion recognizes Jesus is authority and knows Jesus only has to say the word, and his servant will be healed.

Jesus is amazed at the man’s faith, telling his followers that he has met no one in Israel who has a similar faith.  “No one in Israel” as opposed to the gentile centurion has expressed a belief in Jesus’s authority over illness. Why is this surprising? There are several texts in Isaiah which suggest the messiah would have a healing ministry, Isaiah 35:5-7. 61:1-4. If Jesus was known for “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” and healing every disease and sickness (Matt 4:24), then the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees should have made the connection to these prophecies about the coming eschatological age. In the next few pages of Matthew, the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees will question Jesus’s authority and cast doubt on the origins of his power.

Skipping over 8:10-12 for now, the story concludes in verse 13, the servant is immediately healed. In the leper story, Jesus says he is willing to heal, and in this story, Jesus once again expresses his authority by healing the servant by his word, crossing over social and cultural boundaries to care for someone at the lowest rungs of society.



Jesus Heals a Man with Leprosy – Matthew 8:1-4

In the first three stories in Matthew 8, Jesus heals three people of the fringes of Jewish society, demonstrating his authority of physical illness and fulfilling Isaiah 53:4. In Matthew 8:1-4 Jesus heals a man with leprosy by touching him.

Jesus healing the leprous man is an example of the triple tradition (Matt 8:1-4//Mark 1:40-45//Luke 5:12-16). Matthew omits Jesus’s response in Mark 1:41. There Jesus either has compassion on the man (the majority of manuscripts) or he is indignant (D and some old Italian versions). Matthew also drops out the man’s disobedience to the command to stay silent (Mark 1:45, “instead he went out and began to talk freely). Matthew tells the story as simply as possible in order to emphasize Jesus’s authority over illness.

A person with rotting skin like leprosy was considered as good as dead. Their disease was often associated with God’s judgment (cf. 2 Chr 26:20). As ceremonially unclean and as contagious persons, they were required to keep themselves separate from society and to announce their approach with the words “Unclean, unclean!” (Lev 14:45–46; cf. Luke 17:12). In Numbers 5:2 the leprous are to be “put out of the camp.” When Miriam is punished with leprosy Moses pleads with God to heal her saying “Let her not be as one dead.” Leviticus 13-14 has a wide range of rules for people with skin conditions and in Deuteronomy 24:8-9 Israel is to be very careful with lepers, “remember Miriam!” There are several stories which describe leprosy as a punishment from God (2 Kings 5:7; 7:3-10; 15:5; 2 Chron 26:16–21).

Leprosy is a concern in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the Temple Scroll, lepers and menstruating women should have a place to live outside a city to live so they do not defile people in the city. The section just prior to this quote instructs the readers to “not be like the Gentiles” who bury their dead everywhere, but rather build cemeteries outside the city to avoid corpse uncleanliness. No one with leprosy or a skin disease was allowed to enter the Temple (11Q20 Col. xii:3).

11Q19 Col. xlviii:14 And in every city you shall make places for those contaminated 15 with leprosy, and with sores and with scabies so that they do not enter your cities and defile them; and also for those who have a flux 16 and for women when they are in their menstrual impurity and after giving birth, so that they do not defile in their midst 17 with their menstrual impurity. And the leper who has chronic leprosy or scabies and the priest has declared him unclean. (trans. Garcı́a Martı́nez and Tigchelaar)

This is similar to the Mishnah which lists lepers along with several other “fathers of uncleanliness.” These things render a person unclean by contact. If a leper touched a plate or a bowl, then that vessel was unclean and any food eaten from that vessel would be rendered unclean.

m. Kelim 1:1 The Fathers of Uncleannesses [are] (1) the creeping thing, and (2) semen [of an adult Israelite], and (3) one who has contracted corpse uncleanness, and (4) the leper in the days of his counting, and (5) sin offering water of insufficient quantity to be sprinkled. Lo, these render man and vessels unclean by contact, and earthenware vessels by [presence within the vessels’ contained] airspace (trans. Neusner).

In addition to this, the tractate m. Nega’im concerns various skin diseases and how they affect the cleanliness of clothing, homes, etc. as well as methods for purifying a leper.

m. Nega’im 13:11 A leper who entered the house—all the utensils which are there are unclean—even up to the beams.

m. Nega’im 14:1 A  How do they purify the leper? (B 1) He would bring a new flask of clay, and (2) put in it a quarter-log of living water, and (3) bring two undomesticated birds. C He slaughtered one of them over the clay utensil and over the living water. D He dug [a hole] and buried it before him [the leper]. E He took cedarwood and hyssop and scarlet wool and bound them together with the ends of the strip [of wool] and brought near to them the tips of the wings and the tip of the tail of the second [bird]. F He dipped [them in the blood of the slaughtered bird] and sprinkled [the blood] seven times on the back of the hand of the leper. G There are some who say, “On his forehead.” H And thus did he sprinkle on the lintel of the house on the outside.

The man kneels before Jesus, a sign of respect, probably not worship. When the leper asks to be made clean, he is asking Jesus not just to remove his painful disease, but to be allowed back into Jewish life, including living again with his family and worship at the Temple.

Jesus responds by touching the man and he is immediately made clean. No one touches a leper since touching make the person unclean and they may contract the disease themselves. Touching the untouchable violates the law (cf. Lev 5:3).

Jesus then tells the man to say nothing but rather go to a priest to offer a gift. Why does Jesus command silence? Although it is more clear in Mark, there is a “messianic secret” theme in Matthew’s gospel. In Matthew 16:20 he tells his disciples to tell no one that he is the Messiah, and in 17:9 he tells the three witnesses of the transfiguration to tell no one about their experience until after the resurrection. The usual explanation is that healing a leper would have confirmed Jesus is the messiah and drawn even larger crowds, crowds of people who would misunderstand the nature of Jesus’s messianic activity.

m. Nega’im 14:7 A On the eighth day [Lev. 14:10] one brings three beasts: a sin offering, and a guilt offering, and a whole offering. B The poor person would bring sin offering of fowl and a whole offering of fowl [Lev. 14:21]. 14:8 A He came to the guilt offering and put his two hands on it and slaughtered it. B And two priests received its blood, one in a utensil and one by hand. C This one who received [the blood] in the utensil came and sprinkled it on the wall of the altar. D And this one who received it by hand came to the leper. E And the leper immersed in the court of the lepers. F He came and stood in the gate of Nicanor. G  R. Judah says, “He did not require immersion [on the eighth day, having done so on the seventh].”

Why would Jesus require a proof of healing? A gift after a skin disease is cleared was Moses commanded so that he can once again be part of Jewish society. “Jesus is thus shown to be faithful to the stipulations of the Torah in spite of an infraction of the command not to touch” (Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 199). People with skin conditions were considered unclean for a period of seven days, after which time they had to submit to a priest for inspection and make a series of washings and offerings to be restored to a state of ritual cleanliness.

When Jesus touches the leper he crosses a boundary most of his contemporaries would not even approach. He showed compassion for the leper even though there was fear and loathing for the leprous man. How does Jesus’s action of touching the leper provide a model for contemporary ministry?


Were Lepers Considered Unclean in the Bible? Matthew 8:1-2

In Matthew 8:1-2, a man with leprosy approaches Jesus and asks to be made clean. It is important to understand leprosy in the context of the first century. In modern usage, leprosy refers to a specific medical condition known as Hansen’s disease. The Greek λεπρός covers a side range of skin conditions, so it is perhaps better to call this a “bad skin condition” (although this runs the risk of making the reader think the man just had a really bad case of acne). In classical Greek, the word λεπρός referred to skin that was scaly, rough, or harsh or things that were “mangy” (BrillDAG).

Jesus heals a leper

People with skin conditions were considered unclean for a period of seven days, after which time they had to submit to a priest for inspection and make a series of washings and offerings to be restored to a state of ritual cleanliness.

However, in a recent JBL article, Myrick Shinall has challenged the consensus view that people with leprosy were shunned in Jewish society. He argues the text usually cited in the commentaries are inconsistent and fragmentary and is more interested in diagnosing leprosy rather than excluding the leper from society (924). There is considerable variation of exclusion because of leprosy. Although Miriam is sent outside the camp, Naaman is permitted to go anywhere (2 Kings 5) and Uzziah was forced to live in a separate house, but the text does not describe the king as in isolation (2 Chron 26).

Shinall then argues there is no social isolation in the various leper stories in the Gospels (932). There is nothing in Matthew 8, for example, that indicates this leprous many was living a life of social isolation, and later Jesus will enter the home of Simon the Leper and eat with him (Matt 26:6). Shinall understands Simon’s name as indicating he was currently suffering from leprosy; he is not “Simon, the former Leper.”

The problem Shinall addresses is the common, an inaccurate portrayal of Second Temple Judaism as overly concerned with purity in contrast to the loving Jesus who reached out to lepers. He sees this as a clear bias against Jews in early church writers and implicit in modern commentators. If the motivation for overplaying social exclusion is slandering the Jews, then it should be dropped (934).

I am in agreement with his final conclusion: do not slander the Jews in your teaching and preaching on this passage (seriously, don’t). However, social isolation because of one’s status is exactly the point of the three stories in Matthew 8:1-17. Jesus touches the leper and Peter’s mother-in-law, as I will show later, she is suffering from a fever which is associated with the curses for covenant unfaithfulness. The middle story in this section has Jesus talking with a Gentile, risking a violation of purity laws.

The contrast is not between a kind and living Jesus and the whole of Second Temple Judaism, but with the way Pharisees practiced purity. Contact with a leper, a Gentile and a feverish woman were all grave risks for rendering someone unclean and would require a person to make appropriate washings in order to return to a state of cleanliness.

This needs to be unpacked more, but for now, I will state here that the Pharisees were the sub-group within Judaism who attempted to live in a state of ritual purity at all times. They are also the group who will come into direct conflict with Jesus over these kinds of purity issues.

Bibliography: Myrick C. Shinall Jr., “The Social Condition of Lepers in the Gospels,” JBL 137.4 (2018): 915-34.

See also: J. K. Elliott, “The Healing of the Leper in the Synoptic Parallels.” TZ 34 (1978) 175–76;  Ituma, Ezichi, Enobong I. Solomon, and Favour C. Uroko. “The Cleansing of the Leper in Mark 1:40–45 and the Secrecy Motif: An African Ecclesial Context.” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 75.4 (October 2019): 1–11.

Main Themes in Matthew 8-12

Matthew 4:23-25 and 9:35 form an inclusio, a frame around the Sermon on the Mount (ch. 5-7) and the authority/miracle stories (ch. 8-9), forming a major unit in the Gospel of Matthew. (Click here for an index of all Sermon on the Mount posts.) At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the people are amazed because Jesus teaches with authority. In Matthew 9:35, they are amazed at Jesus because he does things with authority.

After collecting Jesus’s teaching on the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew collects ten miracles (nine healings) to demonstrate that Jesus is the Servant from Isaiah 53:4. In the Septuagint the servant “carries our sins and suffers pain for us, and we regarded him as one who is in difficulty, misfortune, and affliction” (LES2). These themes are clear in Matthew 8-9, Jesus heals people who are on the fringes of society because their illnesses are associated with uncleanliness and sin. Similar to the blindman in John 9, someone might have asked what the leprous man did to deserve such a painful punishment. Jesus disconnects sin and illness in these stories. This is clear in Matthew 9:1-8 when Jesus forgives a man’s sin without healing him first; the teachers of the Law consider this blasphemous since only God can forgive sin and false because the man was still paralyzed.

Interspersed into this collection of miracle stories are sayings of Jesus and reactions from crowds, the disciples, teachers of the law and Pharisees. In most cases, people who should not understand who Jesus do (a centurion, 8:9-9; demons 8:28; tax-collectors, 9:9-13; blind men, 9:27). Those who should recognize his healings as signs the messianic age has come do not understand Jesus (anyone in Israel, 8:10-12; the disciples, 8:23-27; teachers of the law, 9:3; John the Baptist’s disciples, 9:14; Pharisees, 9:34).

These reactions to Jesus anticipate a series of conflict stories that follow in Matthew 10-12. People begin to react to Jesus as the Messiah in various ways, but the climax ins the Pharisees rejecting Jesus and declare he is working his miracles under the power of Beelzebub. Jesus says this rejection is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, a sin that will not be forgiven int his age or the age to come (Matt 12:32). Matthew 12 ends with Jesus’s family asking to speak with him (12:46-50). In Mark 3:20-21 his family wants to take him home because they think he has lost his mind, although that detail is omitted in Matthew 12.

For example, in this first section of Matthew 8-9, a leper, a gentile, and a woman with a fever, people who are unclean with respect to ritual purity under the Law, are healed. Jesus touches a leper, speaks with a Gentile, and touches a woman. All three actions would render Jesus unclean by the standards of the Pharisees, who lived as much as possible in a state of perpetual ritual purity.

Just as the Sermon on the Mount subverts expectations about the Law and how one lives out their lives as Jews in the Second Temple Period, Jesus will challenge the beliefs of other teachers (especially the Pharisees) with respect to discipleship (who can be a follower of Jesus looks much different than who can be a follower of the Pharisees!) He declares that “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” while the “sons of the kingdom” will be thrown in the outer darkness where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Those who think they belong in the kingdom of Heaven (sitting at the head table with Abraham) will not enter the kingdom at all, while those who should not be in the kingdom (lepers, Gentiles and a women with a suspicious disease) will not only get in, but they will be the honored guests!