Francis Watson, What is a Gospel?

Watson, Francis. What is a Gospel? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. xvii+335 pp. Hb; $49.99   Link to Eerdmans

Watson intended this collection of essays as a sequel to his 2013 Gospel Writing (Eerdmans, 2013, link to publisher; see here for my four-part review of the book). Chapters 1-2 and 9 are new essays. The rest of the volume collects essays published after Gospel Writings (2016-2020, except chapter 13, 2010). Each chapter begins with a brief introduction or abstract.

What is a Gospel?

The first chapter addresses the genre “gospel.” The word gospel originally refers to a preached message, not a written one, as summarized in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. But early readers attached the word “gospel” to the four canonical gospels. Therefore, the word was extended to include all the diverse material concerning Jesus’s human existence. “Gospel” was an “emergent literary genre” (7). By way of defining a genre gospel, Watson discusses whether the canonized gospels are the same genre as apocryphal gospels. Are the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Thomas the same genre? The claim gospels are more biographical is only possible if non-canonical gospels are overlooked (13). Watson concludes any attempt to define characteristics of the gospel genre “must take all available early gospel literature into account” (15), including non-canonical gospels. With this in mind, “what is the gospel?” First, the gospel genre focuses on the human Jesus and his interaction with other humans, his family, his disciples, etc. Second, Jesus is always the supreme authority figure who definitively mediates human relationships to the divine. Third, the texts ascribed to the apostles or to those closely related to them. The written gospel is authenticated by the claim that the author took part in the events, bearing witness to what they have seen and heard. He then illustrates each point of this definition from the canonical and non-canonical gospels. For Watson, “we should no longer speak of ‘the gospels’ as referring only to the canonical four” (23).

Chapters two and nine are also new contributions to this collection and show what Watson means by including all canonical and non-canonical literature available in the gospel genre. Both chapters concerned Judas. In chapter 2, “Seven Ways to Dispose of Judas,” Watson compares several ways early gospel writers dealt with the problem of Judas. Scholars working on the synoptic problem often trace Judas’s expansion from Mark to Matthew, Luke-Acts, and then John. Watson observes that even in Mark, Judas is mythologized (26). He plays a part in the sacred drama as previewed in Scripture. Matthew expands that role by attaching him to Zechariah 11 (the thirty pieces of silver, the potter’s field).

Luke-Acts takes a slightly different view on the end of Judas’s story (in Luke, supernatural punishments are particularly nasty). Watson then opens the door to non-canonical gospel writing. He points out that in Papias, Judas is a spectacle. He does not die from his fall but wanders around in a grotesque condition, inflated beyond all medical help, as an example of ungodliness. Apollinaris of Laodicea harmonizes Matthew and Luke with Papias, making Judas an example of ungodliness. In the Gospel of Peter, Judas is just ignored. But the manuscript evidence for the Gospel of Peter is thin, but Watson argues the gospel of Peter did not even have a betrayer. The Gospel of Judas is quite different. Judas responds to Jesus properly at the Last Supper and Jesus rewards him with a private revelation explaining the mysteries of the Kingdom. But that privileged knowledge excludes him from salvation. Instead of the martyrdom he desired, Judas was stoned by his fellow apostles!

The third new contribution in this collection also treats the Gospel of Judas (ch. 9). The Gospel of Judas, Watson says, “flaunts its heretical orientation even in its title. This is a false gospel from a false apostle.” Although the Gospel of Judas was immediately called a gnostic gospel when discovered, Watson thinks this categorization has disadvantages. First, calling the book a “gnostic gospel” perpetuates a divide between Gnosticism and canonical gospels (168). The Gospel of Judas has much more in common with the canonical gospels than Gnosticism. Second, calling the Gospel of Judas a gnostic gospel forces the book into a prior understanding of what Gnosticism was. Although the Gospel of Judas certainly has affinities with the Nag Hammadi texts, we should not read those texts in isolation from the landscape of early Christianity. Applying these observations to the Gospel of Judas, Watson argues the book is part of a gospel genre. The Gospel of Judas focuses on the earthly career of Jesus and his interactions with others, and on Jesus’s supreme authority as a divine figure.

Watson draws some intriguing parallels between Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi and the Gospel of Judas. In Mark and Matthew, Peter’s confession that Jesus is Messiah is the turning point of the story. Although Peter is the most faithful disciple, Jesus rebukes him: “get thee behind me, Satan!” In the gospel of John, Peter’s confession is no longer the turning point of the story, and the most faithful disciple is now the beloved disciple. “Get thee behind me, Satan” becomes Jesus’s statement, “one of you is the devil” (John 6:70) Judas now works on behalf of the devil, not Peter. In the Gospel of Thomas, Thomas confesses Jesus as Messiah and receives a privileged revelation from Jesus. Similarly, in the Gospel of Judas, it is Judas who is the confessor and receives additional revelation.

Chapters 3-8 deal with aspects of gospel writing and reception. These chapters appeared in various essay collections after Gospel Writing was published. Chapter 3 asks, “How did Mark Survive?” if Matthew is an expanded or “second edition” of Mark, why is Mark retained in the pre-canonical phase? Watson suggests the Gospel of Mark was a “work in progress” that was completed by the gospels of Matthew and Luke, but also by the non-canonical gospels. Mark survived because it was significant to early Christian communities who continued to use Mark even after Matthew was available to them. Possibly the tradition that John Mark was an interpreter for Peter enhanced Mark’s reputation.

Although the gospel of Mark was preserved, another gospel source was lost: Q. In “Does Luke need Q” (ch 4), Watson suggests Q was never lost because it never actually existed. Based on Gospel Writings, he points out gospel writers omit, relocate, or rewrite their sources. Watson shows this is what Luke did with Matthew, dispensing with the need for Q. Watson states, “a rethink of this orthodox critical dogma is long overdue” (81). Chapter 5 also deals with Q and the Logia. He begins by observing that Q is not independent of its canonical containers (100). But the Gospel of Thomas is a sayings collection like scholarly reconstructions of Q. Watson traces the story of the discovery of the gospel of Thomas (following Grenfell’s account). Still, scholars downplayed any challenge to Q or the two-source hypothesis because Q is academic orthodoxy.

In chapter 6, Watson returns to the idea that gospel writers omit, relocate, and rewrite. Using the story of John the Baptist’s birth and Zechariah’s prophecy (Luke 1), he discusses gospel rewriting in Marcion (falsification), Tatian’s Diatessaron (integration), and Irenaeus (coordination). He suggests there is no sharp distinction between text reception and text production. The desire to recover the original revelatory moment motivates rewriting a gospel. The fourfold canon rejects the assumption that the text and the truth can ever perfectly conform to one another (117).

Chapter 7 examines the ongoing process of gospel rewriting in the Book of Acts and beyond with the Epistula Apostolorum. This document is a gospel-like text that reverses the balance between Jesus’s ministry and post-Easter accounts. Dating to about 170 CE, Epistula Apostolorum adds more post-resurrection activities of Jesus, more instruction, a discussion of the resurrection and punishment, a descent into hell, and even a prediction of Saul’s conversion.

In “Jesus the Lawgiver” (ch. 8), Watson examines several apocryphal gospels which argue allegiance to Jesus is incompatible with the law-giving God of Jewish scripture. Watson briefly summarizes the Apocryphon of John, the Acts of John, First Apocalypse of John, and the reconstruction of Maricon’s Antitheses and Euangelion. For all these examples, “Jesus is not the emissary of the God of the Hebrew scriptures. He is the revealer of a previously unknown father. These texts confront a Christian reader with a choice: either to continue in the impossible service of two masters or gratefully accept the liberation from the one offered by the other” (166).

Chapters 10-12 are concerned with reception history. Watson discusses Marcion’s rejection of the four-fold canonical gospel in favor of his own highly edited Gospel of Luke, Euangelion. For Tertullian, this document was a corruption of the true four-fold canonical gospels. But if one does not impose the later four-fold canonical definition of the gospel on Marcion, Watson argues Marcion was engaged in gospel writing using similar methods as Matthew. In chapter 11, Watson examines the redactional strategy of Tatian in the Diatesseron. He takes the gospel prologue, Zechariah the priest, and the Virgin Mary as his examples and demonstrates that Tatian’s methods were like Matthew or Luke. A source could be amended and juxtaposed; redactors are not obliged to include all available source material, and source material may need to be amplified (233-35). Chapter 12 examines the art of the Lindisfarne Gospels as a form of reception.  This art is intended to interpret the gospels. We not only read the gospels but also view them (253).

Chapter 13 discusses Albert Schweitzer and the quest for the historical Jesus. This article was originally published in a WUNT volume with the subtitle “on the reception of Schweitzer in English.” He compares the original German from the quest for the historical Jesus to the English translation. He concludes, “the consistent eschatology hypothesis is false because it attempts to answer the wrong question” (278). I found this chapter fascinating. However, I’m not sure it is on the topic of this collection of essays.

The final chapter in this collection is “A Reply to My Critics.” Watson wrote this response as the conclusion of a 2019 volume of essays in dialogue with Gospel Writing. He answers several questions raised by the essays in that volume. First, was the fourfold gospel collection inevitable? He answers no, Matthew might have replaced Mark (cf. chapter 3). More gospels were produced beyond the canonical four. But he does not want to imply any kind of authoritarian suppression of non-canonical books (ala The Da Vinci Code). Second, are canonical gospels uniquely biographical? Some scholars have suggested the canonical gospels are biographical, while non-canonical gospels are not. The Gospel of Thomas is an example of this since it is a sayings gospel and not biographical. But Watson answers no. He points out that the Egerton gospel and the Gospel of Peter both include biographical material. Third, is there a gospel genre? Biographical details are insufficient to define the genre gospels (cf., chapter two). As demonstrated by the other essays in this volume, Watson agrees there is a gospel genre, but he defines it broadly enough to include the non-canonical gospels. Fourth, were ancient authors capable of complex redactional procedures? Looking back to chapter 11, Tatian could clearly make use of the previous gospels using redactional strategies not much different from Matthew. “It is a mistake to assume that sayings and parables were handed down in purely oral form and Mark’s decision to write the Jesus tradition had no precedents” (296). Sayings collections existed before Mark, Matthew, and the Gospel of Thomas.

Conclusion. Essay collections are always welcome since tracking individual volumes is difficult. This book is a welcome contribution to the study of gospel origins. Watson’s What is a Gospel? continues the dialogue started in Gospel Writing by extending the gospel genre to include many non-canonical writings about Jesus. The payoff here is further evidence for Watson’s description of the redactional strategies used in the canonical gospels originally presented in Gospel Writings.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant – Matthew 18:23-35

Jesus illustrates his view of unending mercy with a parable demonstrating how the real disciple has experience unlimited forgiveness and therefore should extend unlimited forgiveness to others.

In the story, a king forgives a great debt owed him by his servant (v. 23-27). The details of the parable are hyperbolic: a servant owes his master far more than he can possibly repay. The context may be the “court of the Gentiles” rather than the Galilean Jewish context of Jesus (suggested by Keener, Matthew, 457). This does not take away from the authenticity since most Jews would have a general knowledge of the way things usually went in a Gentile court.

Scrooge McDuckThe person who owes the great debt is a slave. Most modern readers wonder how a slave could incur such a massive debt. Although the word can refer to court officials and people with power, something that can always be turned into wealth. Perhaps Jesus has in mind a corrupt Herodian bureaucrat who has used his position to make himself wealthy, but has instead lost the Herod’s court a massive amount of money. Slaves could be in important roles in the Empires, so that they could accumulate wealth and power, even if they were in a master-slave relationship with the Emperor.

The debt is unimaginably large: ten thousand talents. A “talent” is a standard weight, so this might be a talent of gold, silver, copper, etc. Most scholars assume a talent of silver here, which was worth approximately 6,000 denarii. Since he owed ten thousand talents, the debt is sixty million denarii. If a denarius was the standard wage for a day laborer, then this debt represents nearly 200,000 years of labor, if interest on the debt, then the average laborer could not possibly work enough to pay off the debt.

Even if we assuming the slave was in a position to invest, take bribes, sell favors, etc., he could raise more money, but the debt is intentionally so large even the wealthiest person could not possible pay it back. If Bill Gates owed ten trillion dollars he could not pay off the debt!

In verse 27 Matthew uses a word which usually means a loan. It is possible the man took money from his mater, invested it badly, lost the capital and then accrued massive interest on the loan. John Nolland points out the annual income of Herod’s kingdom when he died in 4 B.C. was about 900 talents, to be divided between his sons (Nolland, Matthew, 756). This servant’s debt is more than ten times the value of Herod’s kingdom. In fact, the word translated as ten-thousand is often translated, “myriad,” an uncountable number. Maybe a modern gloss would be to say he owed “a bazillion dollars.” Bazillion is a made up word that simply means an uncountable, hyperbolic number.

The master responds as any wealthy Roman would, he intends to sell everything the slave owns, including his family into slavery. This is an entirely believable, appropriate, and fair response in the Roman world!  The man’s wife and family were probably already slaves owned by the master, if he were to sell them on the open market, he might generate 500-2000 denarii each (Jeremias, Parables, 211). The slave may not own very much property himself, so the threat to sell everything will not come close to covering the debt.

The servant “fell on his knees,” or better, “did obeisance.” Imploring (προσκυνέω) does not express the depth of this man’s actions before the master. Although it often means worship, it can used “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure” (BDAG). In Matthew, this is the word used in the temptation of Jesus, Satan demands Jesus worship him (Matt 4:10, Luke 4:8), but also the wise men who want to worship Jesus (2:2), but also the disciples who witness Jesus’s control of the storm (14:22, “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” In Matthew 28:9, after the resurrection, the disciples once again fall to the ground in worship of Jesus.

The servant cries out, “Have patience on me” (μακροθυμέω). This is a plea for more time to pay off the debt. Since there is no earthly way to pay off this debt, the man is asking for a “stay of execution” (Nolland, Matthew, 757).

His plea is successful, the master releases the servant from his debt.  In Matthew 18:27 the debt is called a loan (τὸ δάνειον). Since the word is only used in this passage, it might be a variation of vocabulary, or it might be a hint of how the man got into such deep debt in the first place. In either case, this is an audacious act of mercy, one which would have surprised the audience of poor Galileans! People who own debts do not usually forgive them. (Imagine calling up your bank and explaining you have no way to pay your mortgage. He banker may try to help you find a way to pay, but they will probably not forgive what you owe. They will seize your house and resell it to recoup the debt!)

Denarius of Denarius, Octavian and Mark Antony (Ephesus in 41 B.C.)

The servant has therefore experienced an audacious act of mercy and has been released from the bondage of his debt.  Does this make any differences in his attitude toward those who owe him a debt?

The servant who received audacious grace went out and found the servant who owned him money. This is not a random encounter, he went out of his way to find the servant and force him to pay the debt. The verb “found” is common, but Jesus used it in 18:13 or the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep and finds him. When he found someone who owed him money, he seized the servant and began to choke him (imperfect used for the beginning of an ongoing action). The image is also hyperbolic, imagine the unmerciful servant grabbing him around the neck to strangle him in order to make him pay. (I imagine Homer Simpson choking Bart!)

The fellow servant asks for forgiveness, using the exact same words as the unmerciful servant. He also asks for more time to raise the cash to pay the debt, the unmerciful servant is not willing to extend him additional time to pay. The debt is large, but not unmanageable. One hundred denarii would represent about three month’s wages for an average day laborer. But debt is relative, for someone making virtually nothing, one hundred denarii is impossible to repay. Since the servant cannot pay his debt, the unmerciful servant has his put in the same prison in which he was going to go if he had not been shown mercy by his master.

When the king hears what this unmerciful servant has done, he demands the servant pay his entire debt (v. 31-34). This is the point of the parable, the other servants see what this man has done and were “greatly distressed.” This word (λυπέω) can refer to emotional or physical pain, but may have the sense of “offended” in this context. It is modified by σφόδρα, an adverb which is much stronger than “very.” Matthew just used this phrase (ἐλυπήθησαν σφόδρα) in 17:23. After Jesus predicts his impending death, the disciples were “greatly distressed.” In 19:25, the disciples are “greatly distressed” when Jesus tells the rich man to sell everything and follow him. When Jesus declares one of his disciples will betray him, they are all “greatly distressed” (26:22). At the crucifixion, those who witnessed the earthquake were “greatly afraid” (ἐφοβήθησαν σφόδρα, 27:54).

The master hand demonstrated extreme compassion and mercy, but now he is angry (v. 33) and condemns this wicked servant. There are a number of parables with this same language, a servant is judged for failing to do the masters will and is punished (often by being sent out into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, Matthew 25:26). Here the wicked servant is given to the punishment he always deserved, a debtor’s prison. The master became angry, as did the king in Matthew 22:7 (and destroyed the city of those who had refused the invitation to the wedding feast, both passive forms of ὀργίζω).

So it is with God! Matthew 18:35 says “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (ESV). If we have been forgiven such a great debt of sin, why would we dare to withhold mercy and grace to those who offend us! There is a threat here, if we are not forgiving to those who offend us, then the Father will not forgive us!

The context of this parable is dealing with “someone who sins against you” (18:15-20). The point of the parable is not to calculate just how much abuse you will able to take with each and every person, but to forgive everyone even if that forgiveness is socially unacceptable.

What effect will this kind of forgiveness have on a Christian community? It is possible some person will abuse mercy and offend over and over again. But coupled with the previous teaching on confronting those who sin within a congregation, Jesus’s point is not to coddle the unrepentant sinner who refuses to listen to the community (kick that person out!) Jesus wants his followers to be genuinely forgiving, merciful and gracious.

Pointing Out Someone’s Sin – Matthew 18:15-17

So far in Matthew 18 Jesus dealt with those who cause a little child to stumble (18:6-9) and the person who has wandered away from their faith (the one who has stumbled, 18:10-14). In this paragraph, Jesus addresses another related issue, a brother or sister in Christ who has some fault but has not yet stumbled and wandered away from the faith. As suggested by Craig Keener, this person may very well be a stumbling block to others, therefore they need to be addressed before they cause others to stumble (Matthew, 452).

Jesus is concerned his followers should discreetly confront those who are beginning to wander and bring them back into the flock as gently as possible. The earliest communities were very small house churches in the Jewish diaspora. As more gentiles were attracted to the Gospel, it is likely these house churches had to deal with serious conflicts between disciples of Jesus.

Total MoronThere are several difficult issues in 18:15-20. Jesus appears to lay down a process for church discipline, and Matthew’s use of church seems anachronistic. There was no church prior to the resurrection, although it is possible the word can refer to the community of Jesus followers, something like the yahad at Qumran. If this is the case, is there a direct application of the process to modern Christians as they confront one another over their faults?

Davies and Allison (Matthew 2:783) point out first that this is a serious and intentional sin, rather than a one-time insult, something which can be overlooked as a mistake or misunderstanding Second, this is a sin committed against a brother or sister in Christ. This does not apply to people outside of the church since they are not part of the family. Third, this is a private sin, rather than a public offense. If it were known by the community, then it should be dealt with by the whole community.

The disciple of Jesus should attempt to deal with personal offenses privately. The verb is the typical one expected for sin (ἁμαρτάνω, aorist subjunctive). There is nothing here which implies this is offending someone’s preferences. For example, this is not about confronting someone for wearing a bolo tie and cowboy boots to church, nor is this about coming to church with a face full of piercings and tattoos. These things are matters of (good or bad) taste and not personal sin which is damaging to one’s spiritual life.

The phrase “point out their fault” (ESV) is a single word, ἐλέγχω. This verb can have the connotation of “to scrutinize or examine carefully, bring to light, expose” (BDAG) as in Ephesians 5:13. But it is sometimes used for “express strong disapproval of someone’s action” (BDAG), to reprove or to correct someone (as in 2 Tim 4:2, “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching”).

Jesus describes an escalation from a private confrontation to a semi-private meeting, and finally to a public meeting with the church. Two or three witnesses are likely drawn from the Law (citing Deut 19:15, cf., Num 35:30). No court matter could be established by a single witness, at least one or two other witnesses were required. Paul also used this principle of two or three witnesses in 2 Corinthians 13:1 (although Paul himself was the second and third witness) and 1 Timothy 5:19 (dealing with the sin of an elder). The Second Temple document Testament of Gad also recommends a private meeting, “speaking to him in peace.”

Testament of Gad 6 Now, my children, each of you love his brother. Drive hatred out of your hearts. Love one another in deed and word and inward thoughts. For when I stood before my father I would speak peaceably about Joseph, but when I went out, the spirit of hatred darkened my mind and aroused my soul to kill him. Love one another from the heart, therefore, and if anyone sins against you, speak to him in peace. Expel the venom of hatred, and do not harbor deceit in your heart. If anyone confesses and repents, forgive him. If anyone denies his guilt, do not be contentious with him, otherwise he may start cursing, and you would be sinning doubly. In a dispute do not let an outsider hear your secrets, since out of hatred for you he may become your enemy, and commit a great sin against you. He may talk to you frequently but treacherously, or be much concerned with you, but for an evil end, having absorbed from you the venom. Even if he denies it and acts disgracefully out of a sense of guilt, be quiet and do not become upset. For he who denies will repent, and avoid offending you again; indeed he will honor you, will respect you and be at peace. 7But even if he is devoid of shame and persists in his wickedness, forgive him from the heart and leave vengeance to God.

The final step is a public confrontation with the whole congregation. In the context of the earliest followers of Jesus, this would not be a large assembly. Gatherings were small groups of believers worshiping in homes or other semi-private places. This is not a public tribunal before a crowd of hundreds. If after the first confrontation the person does not listen (μὴ ἀκούσῃ) the semi-private meeting is necessary. But if he refuses to listen (παρακούσῃ, to ignore something which has in fact been heard, BDAG) to the two or three witnesses, a public meeting is necessary. Anyone who refuses to hear a word of correction from two or three fellow disciples implies the person caught in a sin disagrees they are in sin. They do not believe their behavior (or belief) is a fault which must be corrected. Looking ahead on what “binding and loosing” means in the next saying, the person may disagree with the community decision to consider something behavior (or belief) to be sinful (or not).

If a person does not recognize their sin, the final step is to treat the offending person as a Gentile or a tax-collector. This appears harsh since the Jewish people avoided contact with Gentiles (or those who worked for them, like a tax-collector). When the disciples visited the villages of Galilee, those which rejected the disciples were treated like Gentiles (shake of the dust of their cloaks). When Paul is rejected in a synagogue, he often does the same thing to indicate he will treat those who have rejected his teaching like a Gentile.

The problem is how this works out in real life. Some people really do enjoy pointing out another person’s fault. The Internet is full of people who have nothing better to do than argue about theological issues and condemn someone’s practice of their Christian faith. Some of those issues may be legitimate, but most of the time there is condemnation without any real engagement.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talked about how one confronts a fellow disciple because of a sin. The disciple ought to deal with their own sin, the “log in your own eye,” before confronting someone over a minor sin, the “speck in their eye.” If the disciple of Jesus is busy dealing with their own spiritual life, then they will “see clearly” (Τότε διαβλέψεις). In Matthew 7:3-5, Jesus says the one who has dealt with a particular problem is able to gently correct a fellow disciple. To “gently correct” is the guiding principle in Matthew 18:15 as well.

Do Not Despise the Little Ones – Matthew 18:10-14

Jesus commands his followers not to despise, or “look down on,” the little ones. Although this seems fairly straight forward, there are several issues with this saying. Does Jesus teach that children have guardian angels?

First, what happened to Matthew 18:11? In the King James Version, the verse reads “For the Son of Man came to save the lost.” At some point a copiest added Luke 19:10 in order to enhance the connection between verse 10 and verses 12-14 (Morris, Matthew, 464). Most modern translations do not include the verse.

Second, the verb translate do not despise” (καταφρονέω) has a wide range of meanings, such as “not to be concerned with.” But Luz points out it is not synonymous with σκανδαλίζω, the verb used in the previous passage (cause to sin). He considers this verb “much weaker” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 440, note 27). There is therefore a shift away from causing a child to sin to simply ignoring children as unimportant.

Third, are the “little ones” in this paragraph the children from verse 5? Jesus used a word which means child in v. 5 (παιδία) but on verses 5-6 he uses a more generic term (μικροί). It appears Jesus has actual children in mind in this saying rather than his disciples.

Eh… no.

The reason no one should despise a little one is that they have an angel before the father. Does Jesus imply children have guardian angels? One problem with Christian thinking about angels is we are more influence by popular culture than the Bible. In the Bible, angels are in fact concerned for the believer, but they never are portrayed as “Harold the Angel” who is trying to earn his wings.

There is a hint of guardian angels in the Old Testament and the literature of the Second Temple period. In Psalm 91:11-13, for example, angels guard every way of the psalmist. This is the verse Satan himself quotes during Jesus’s temptation. There are several stories in the Old Testament in which people see angels (Jacob in Gen 24:7, 24:40, 48:16). There are a number of Second Temple allusions to something like a guarding angel. In Tobit 5:4-22, Tobit sees the angel Raphael, Raphael then travels with him and protects his on several occasions.

Most modern discussions of guardian angels range from sober recognition of the protection of God to new age psychobabble. For example, Ulrich Luz concludes guardian angels are part of an outdated worldview. “I am of the opinion that a modern interpretation of Matt 18:10 can simply try to take seriously the substance of the concern expressed in the language of an earlier age.” He therefore abandons “the concrete idea of guardian angels, since it is no longer self-evident to the modern mind.” But he also observes that even Martin Luther believed “it is proper and necessary to preach about the good guardian angel of children who wears a white robe and sits at the child’s crib” (Matthew 8-20, 440, note 28). This verse is sometime used to defend infant baptism, although that is a particularly theological reading of this difficult verse.

Most modern discussions of angels sounds more like new age psychobabble. In modern new age, mystical Christianity the guardian angel idea has grown into a wild eco-system of demi-gods who allegedly can be contacted, evoked and manipulated into giving you good fortune and wealth. “Guardian angels watch over you throughout your lifetime. Guardian angels provide protection, guidance and encouragement. Your guardian angel is praying for you and delivering the answers to your prayers. Your guardian angel also keeps a record of the choices you have made in your lifetime.

This is not at all what Jesus is saying! He says that the little ones have an advocate before God’s throne. By using a small child as an illustration in Matthew 18, Jesus is making a lesser-to-greater argument. If even a child receives justice before God, how much more the follower of Jesus. If there are “angels in heaven” pleading the case of little children, how much more should the true disciple of Jesus care for the lowest in their society?

This is a particularly important principle for global Christianity. In the west, there is a general sense that children are vulnerable and need to be protected, including proper health care and education. Even where this is woefully inadequate, most western countries understand the need to care for children. But in countries where care for children is not an important cultural value Christianity must take the lead and care for the child, especially those who are orphaned or have special needs.

Crippling Yourself for the Kingdom of God – Matthew 18:8-9

What does Jesus mean when he says “if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” in Matthew 18:8? Does Jesus really what his followers to cripple themselves for the Kingdom of God? One of the more disturbing sayings in the Gospel of Matthew is Jesus’s command to his disciples to cut off a hand, foot or eye is better than being sent to hell. Also he has already said it is better to pluck out an eye (5:29-30) than to enter hell with two good eyes. In that context I suggested Jesus meant “don’t let your eyes make you sin.” Jesus’s command to “cut off your hand” is an intentionally shocking saying by Jesus, although most modern readers take these commands to maim oneself as warnings intended to catch the reader off-guard and shock them.Dexter Cleaver

Was mutilation used as a punishment in the Second Temple Period? Josephus refers to the amputation of hands for forgery: “Galileans had cut off his brother’s hands on a charge of forging letters prior to the outbreak of hostilities” (Life, 177). Rather than execute a man for treason, Josephus substituted cutting off a hand: “To his urgent request to spare him one hand I grudgingly consented; at which, to save himself the loss of both, he gladly drew his sword and struck off his left hand” (Life, 34, 173, cf. JW 2.21.10; see Morna Hooker, Mark, 233).

Anyone in the Jewish audience would have been shocked at the suggestion one ought to mutilate themselves in order to avoid sin especially as a way to enter into the kingdom of God. Although there is an “eye for an eye” principle in the Law, it was not intended for self-control. Given what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount about the source of sin, would cutting off a hand or foot actually control the thoughts and desires which motive one to steal or physically harm another person?

Why the hand, foot and eye? John Nolland suggests these are the three body parts which mediate our contact with the world (Matthew, 739). The ear could be included, since it hears; the tongue is the source of much sin in the Wisdom literature, but it shows what is inside a person.

Jesus says it is better to be maimed than to enter hell, where “the fire never goes out and the worms never die. ”Gehenna” refers to the valley (ge in Hebrew) of Hinnom. Manasseh used this valley to sacrifice humans to Moloch. Josiah destroyed these altars and turned the valley into a garbage dump (2 Kings 23:10). Because fires burned continually, it became a metaphor for hell. The fire in verse 44 is “unquenchable” (ἄσβεστος), the same word used in Matthew 25:41, for the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. John the Baptist described the messiah as having his winnowing fork ready to gather the wheat into his barn and the chaff to the unquenchable fire.

Jesus quotes Isaiah 66:24, the final line of the book describe a scene of apocalyptic judgment. The metaphor appears in Judith 16:17 (probably quoting Isaiah and applying it to judgment on Assyria) and Sirach 7:17 (the ultimate punishment of the ungodly). Like all metaphors for hell, it is difficult to know how literal the image of constantly burning flesh should be taken.

Isaiah 66:24 (NRSV) And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.

Judith 16:17 (NRSV) Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the Day of Judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever.

Sirach 7:17 (NRSV) Humble yourself to the utmost, for the punishment of the ungodly is fire and worms.

This gruesome metaphor is a vivid contrast to the goodness of entering into the life of the kingdom of God. But “the work of a physician who may have to amputate parts of a body” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 436).

This is a radical call to holiness; how ought it work out in the life of the believer today? Sometimes we need to separate from a particular behavior because it may cause us to sin. Some of these are very obvious and most Christians have enough sense to know to avoid the “big sins.” It is possible some behavior is socially acceptable and popular, but it puts us in a place where we sin. When I talk with teens or college age people, I talk quite a bit about entertainment choices. Most Christians have the sense to stay away from the obvious sins on the internet, but if your use of social media leads to mean-spirit talk, gossip, materialism, etc. Perhaps your phone needs to be amputated from your hand in order to enter the kingdom of God.

Sometimes it is necessary to voluntarily separate from other people because they may lead you into sin. A classic example: a person who struggles with alcoholism should not hang out with friends at a bar. But if you have a friend who constantly encourages gossip, maybe it is time to amputate that person from your life.