MORE ON THE DISCIPLES’ CONFUSION

PMW 2020-056 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

Over the past few months I have written several articles on the disciples’ questions to Jesus in Matthew 24:3. Their two questions are: “Tell us, [1] when will these things happen, and [2] what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” Thus, their two questions are asking “when” (Gk. pote) and “what” (Gk. ti). Understanding their questions and their state-of-mind is important for us if we ourselves want to understand the Olivet Discourse (known in academia as the “Eschatological Discourse”).

In those earlier articles I pointed out that the disciples were frequently confused at Jesus’ teaching, which often caused them to misunderstand it. I noted that their tendency to confusion explains why they ask him about his “coming [Gk.: parousia] and the end of the age [Gk.: sunteleias tou aiōnos],” when he prophesies the destruction of the temple (Matt. 24:2). They obviously assumed that the temple’s destruction would occur at his Second Advent at the end of history. And they were mistaken in this Jew-centric supposition.

As I am working on my commentary titled Olivet in Context: A Commentary on Matthew 21–25, I am employing insights from Narrative Criticism to help flesh out the exposition. Narrative Criticism is a method for understanding the Gospels that focuses on each Gospel as a whole. It recognizes that each Gospel writer has a story to tell and has particular issues he wants to present. Thus, to understand any given verse or pericope (smaller text-unit) we must understand how it fits in with the story-flow of the particular Gospel in which it is found. The Gospels are not simply collections of interesting stories organized in generally chronological fashion (in fact, sometimes their organization is topical rather than chronological).

Introducing Dr. Brown

I have just begun reading a helpful book by a scholar who holds to what we would call an orthodox preterist view of the Olivet Discourse. That book is The Gospels as Stories: A Narrative Approach to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (BakerAcademic, 2020) by Jeannine K. Brown (Ph.D., Professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary). Though this book does not focus on Olivet, several of her other writings do — and follow rather closely the arguments of R. T. France, Jeffrey A. Gibbs, David Garland, and Alistair I. Wilson. All four of these scholars are invaluable resources for my orthodox preterist understanding of the Olivet Discourse. And now I have added Brown to my list of favorite authors on Olivet.
The Olivet Discourse Made Easy


Olivet Discourse Made Easy (by Ken Gentry)

Verse-by-verse analysis of Christ’s teaching on Jerusalem’s destruction in Matt 24. Shows the great tribulation is past, having occurred in AD 70, and is distinct from the Second Advent at the end of history.

See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com


Two of Dr. Brown’s books that I am using in my Olivet in Context research are:

Matthew (Teach the Text Commentary) (Baker, 2015)
Matthew (The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary) (Eerdmans 2018)

I highly recommend these two works for an orthodox preterist analysis, along with those by France, Gibbs, Garland, and Wilson.

Introducing Narrative Criticism

In Brown’s The Gospels as Stories she is explaining the mechanics and usefulness of Narrative Criticism for Gospel interpretation. I found her comments on the disciples frequent misunderstanding of Jesus to be very helpful — since I had already come to that conclusion before reading her work on the topic.

In this article I will basically be citing a few paragraphs of Brown’s comments to show how this particular scholar sees the disciples’ confusion functioning in Matthew’s narrative. Narrative Criticism is very interested in plot development and character presentation as a means to better understanding each Gospel writer’s point in presenting Jesus as he does. The disciples’ confusion is a key element in their character presentation in Matthew.

I will just cite a few passages from Brown hoping that these might whet your appetite for reading more on Narrative Criticism — and more of Brown’s works. (Though I don’t agree with everything she says. For instance, I hold to Matthean Priority rather than Marcan Priority.)

Characterizing the Disciples

Chapter 5 in The Gospels as Stories was right down my alley. That chapter is titled: “Matthew’s Characterization of the Disciples.” Consider Brown’s observations:

“Their worship of [Christ] (14:33; 28:17) confirms they truly grasp at key moments his identity as the Messiah and Son to whom God has granted all authority (28:18). Yet Matthew also portrays the disciples as very often misunderstanding the teachings of Jesus. Their less-than-adequate comprehension surfaces in their frequent questions, requests for an explanation, and actions or statements that are subsequently corrected by Jesus” (p. 92).


An Eschatology of Victory
by J. Marcellus Kik
This book presents a strong, succinct case for both optimistic postmillennialism and for orthodox preterism. An early proponent in the late Twentieth-century revival of postmillennialism. One of the better non-technical studies of Matt. 24. It even includes a strong argument for a division between AD 70 and the Second Advent beginning at Matt. 24:36.

For more Christian educational materials: www.KennethGentry.com


Brown provides a chart titled “Disciples’ Words Showing Their Inadequate Understanding” (pp. 92–93). In this list she has Matthew 24:3 as one area where they are confused. And her two commentaries on Matthew (mentioned above) show how this is so.

After the chart, Brown writes: “Even if we as readers might consider one or more of these questions legitimate or even helpful, the cumulative effect of their questions and Jesus’ frequent teachings to set them straight paints the disciples as prone to misunderstand Jesus’ teachings” (p. 93).

On p. 94 she writes:

“The disciples’ propensity to misunderstand is especially apparent when Jesus teaches the disciples about his mission to go to Jerusalem, suffer, and be killed. . . . . Their preoccupation with their own status in the coming kingdom (e.g., 18:1; 19:27; 20:20–24) provides a vivid contrast to Jesus, who renounces any status or power he could assert — he comes as a Messiah who serves (20:25–28). Andrew Trotter sums up this part of the disciples’ characterization: ‘Virtually everything [the disciples] ‘understand’ in the Gospel is understood with a grain of salt; Jesus has taught them clearly and well, but their own dullness and especially their over-riding misunderstanding of the nature of his messiahship clouds their understanding.’”

On p. 95 we read:

“A first area for exploration involves the sheer amount of teaching that Jesus provides his disciples. Matthew is known for the five great discourses containing Jesus’ teachings, and each of these has the disciples as its audience either exclusively (the Mission Discourse, Matt. 10; the Community Discourse, Matt. 18; the Eschatological Discourse, Matt. 24–25) or in concert with the Galilean crowds (the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5–7; the Parables Discourse, Matt. 13). . . . Yet as we’ve already seen, the disciples struggle to understand, and some of Jesus’ words to them diagnose their lack of understanding.”

On p. 97 we read: “Matthew does not give us explicit statements of being for the disciples (i.e., attributes), such as ‘they were people of great faith,’ or even summations of their state of mind, such as ‘the disciples routinely misunderstood Jesus and his mission.’ Yet we can infer from the narrative that the first of these generalization is untrue while the second is quite accurate.”

On p. 99 we read: “the disciples’ own words and actions, as well as Jesus’ descriptions of them, point to their ongoing misunderstanding of Jesus’ teachings and his messianic mission.”

On p. 103 we come to Brown’s analysis of the function of the disciples for Matthew’s readers:

“Early on Matthew encourages the reader to identify with the disciples. He does so by their initial positive characterization: they leave their livelihoods to follow Jesus (Matt. 4:!8–22; 9:9). Readers will also align themselves with the disciples if they identify with the disciples’ commitments and situation…. As the narrative moves along, the disciples’ characterization becomes more varied, with positive qualities, such as commitment to and presence with Jesus, intermingling with negative traits, like frequent misunderstanding and little faith. This increasingly negative portrait has an effect on the reader…. The reader will evaluate more closely the disciples’ words and behavior, especially as they contrast with the values of the narrator [Matthew] and of Jesus. The reader will be drawn toward the latter, with the disciples’ negative qualities acting as a foil, ‘challenging the reader to follow Jesus more faithfully than the disciples do.’”

She continues (pp. 104–04): “Yet the disciples — even at their lowest points — are not abandoned by Jesus. So the reader can still feel some sense of identification with the disciples, even when they are negatively portrayed, because of Jesus’ positive stance toward them and toward their future. This continued experience of a certain level of identification creates hope in the reader. That hope finds its source, in part, in Jesus’ presence with his follower (Matt. 28:20).”

Thus, Brown shows us Matthew’s point in focusing on the disciples’ misunderstanding. It is to ward us off from such as we are encouraged to seek a better understanding of Jesus and his mission.

Consequently, we can see how the disciples could be so confused at Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24:3. This, unfortunately, is not “out of character” for the disciples. We should carefully study Matthew’s record and learn how to be better disciples.

 

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One thought on “MORE ON THE DISCIPLES’ CONFUSION

  1. bdubbb July 21, 2020 at 1:09 pm

    I think that this is what is often left out of study of the Bible. I’m always encouraging those around me to try to understand not just what the text is saying but what the author is trying to communicate. I liken it to how people can often tell not only what’s going to happen in a film or television show before it happens but, more importantly, can see that a seemingly trivial scene early on that, often times at least, appears to be of no import to the story is either some sort of foreshadowing, or it is an important insight into characters’ personal psychology which ends up being crucial to the story, or even sometimes it provides the information that the characters come to realize only later is key to solving some problem. Each “scene”, or event, written about is key to understanding what the book is getting at.

    Why do we think, then–since not only film and television work this way but novels always have as well–that the Gospels would be any different? The author has a point that they are trying to make, a story they are trying to tell. The events they carefully chose to include are not just random events that they wanted to throw in; rather, these events support the narrative. For example, while they almost always include some moral teaching, almost every parable includes tell-tale signs of being about Israel and/or The Church (the new bride, the “ekklesia”).

    Not only does this apply to the Gospels, but it seems to me to apply to the Biblical narrative as a whole. Genesis has always seemed odd to me, covering a large time-span, not really focusing on a central character (at least not the way that the Gospels focus on Christ), not really seeming to tell a single story, at least not a complete one. That all changed one day when I realized, and lamented how obtuse I had been, it is introducing God and Israel, and their role as a chosen people, setting the stage for what is to come. In this way it is like a lead-in to the prophets. The book of Genesis is part of a larger story. The prophets, especially Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel (it seems to me), are crucial to understanding the Gospels and Revelation.

    In summary, it is insights like the one in this post that have transformed the Bible from a book of random stories and sayings, in my mind, into a cohesive narrative.

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