The Bible may be approached on several levels and at its grandest, most influential, touches on the most profound insights of life.
The Bible must also be studied in other ways, for though the values it conveys may be eternal, the lessons to be learned are expressed in texts written in ancient languages in foreign lands.
As we approach the New Testament, the story that unfolds in the Gospels and Acts is told in a Hellenistic Greek from the first and second centuries AD in the Land of Israel within a particular historical and geographical context.
It is this setting that we will discuss in this series, as we look at the people and places, as well as the cultural, religious, political and economic backgrounds of first century Israel. All of these are integral parts of the New Testament story, which cannot be properly understood without constant reference to this milieu.
The purpose of our series on the World of the Bible does not presume to uncover insights of faith or religious belief, but rather a much humbler purpose in helping gain insights into the canonical text by placing verses side-by-side with the archaeology, geography, papyrology and other discoveries that help clarify the meaning of the biblical passages.
We will leave to you, the reader, the challenge of exploring and discovering lessons that best apply to your journey of faith.
I do hope you will become as excited as I am about delving into the World of the Bible and will engage with questions and discussion in the comments section at the top of each article in this series.
Eager to begin,
The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter One
The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matt. 1:1)
The Gospel that opens the New Testament canon traditionally ascribed to Matthew is told by a tax collector, or publican who was called by Jesus to be an apostle from the customs house in the town of Capernaum along the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
In Luke 5:27 this publican is called Levi, and in Mark 2:14 Levi the son of Alphaeus. He is identified by Mark and Luke as a rich man who gave Jesus and the apostles a great feast. It may be significant that the name of the host of this feast is omitted in Matthew’s account (9:10).
The tax collector
And as Jesus went forth from there, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the custom’s table and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he arose and followed him. (Mt. 9:9)
The Gospel describes how Jesus recruited Matthew from the customs house (in Greek telonion). The term refers to two different kinds of monetary activity: the collection of customs or tolls paid on merchandise passing from one country to another, and the collection of taxes due the state. The common feature of both was that the government customs or taxes were farmed out to regional “publicans,” who in return for a fixed price obtained the right to collect as much as they could from the public.
These publicans (Latin for those who manage a “public” business or service) were therefore universally hated and naturally lumped together with “sinners” in the following verse. Matthew seems to have been engaged in collecting customs rather than taxes, as Capernaum was not a large nor important Roman administrative center. It was, however, close to the frontier (which followed the border of the Jordan River) between the territories of Herod Antipas and of his brother Philip. Although the Roman Empire was economically one unit, it was nevertheless divided into regions, and customs were paid on goods passing from one region to another.
Customs tariffs were sometimes quite complicated, just as modern custom regulations tend to be. A papyrus related to the Palmyrene tariff of 137 AD includes hundreds of items (see below).
The relief pictured above illustrates the interior of a customs office from Pannonia (modern Servia) found on a 3rd century Roman sarcophagus stele of a deceased tax collector seated at a table with a ledger in hand and a bag of coins — his daily takings — in front of him. Before him stands his clerk reading from a large scroll which represents the daily account book. A similar scene must have been enacted every day at Matthew’s customs office where Jesus found him.
What was Jesus doing in the customs office?
The Gospel of Matthew is the longest of the four and the pattern it follows is similar to that of Mark and Luke, the three forming together the “Synoptic Gospels,” i.e., those which can be compared with each other “at a glance.”
The general order begins with an account of Jesus’ birth and ancestry (beginning in Matthew with Abraham, the common ancestor of the Jewish people, and continuing by way of David, from whose descendants the Messiah would come); followed by Jesus’ preparation for his mission, his lengthy ministry in the Galilee and neighboring countries, his journey to Jerusalem, and finally the last week, with his passion, death and resurrection. This order is followed by Mark and Luke, except that Mark gives no account of Jesus’ birth and ancestry.
The illustration shows a page from the Gospel of Matthew from the Sinaiticus Manuscript from the fourth century AD, one of the oldest known manuscripts of the Greek Bible, discovered in 1884 on Mount Sinai by Constantin Tischendorf. Since 1933 it is held in the British Museum and includes a complete version of the New Testament.
The earliest extant manuscript of the Greek New Testament from c. 100 AD is a fragment (seen below) from the Gospel of John measuring about the size of a credit card found in an Egyptian market in 1920 by Bernard Grenfell. The fragment contains the Gospel of John 18:31-33, and on the back parts from verses 37-38.
A word on the accuracy of the Greek New Testament
As we begin this journey through the New Testament, let’s talk about its accuracy. The text we read in our Bibles today is based on original Greek texts that are in turn based on large numbers of ancient manuscripts. All these manuscripts are copies, and the great majority of them are copies of copies, yet ultimately all derive from the originals. A science called textual criticism deals systematically with inconsistencies between texts to try and eliminate as many scribal “errors” as possible.
In the 16th century the Greek New Testament was published for the first time in print. The Dutch philologist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam had established a text from a handful of manuscripts dating from the later Middle Ages. Unfortunately, he used only manuscripts of inferior quality for his 1516 edition. The Reformers used his version to produce vernacular translations of their own.
Until the 19th century, New Testament scholars and translators availed themselves only sparingly of other manuscripts. Then, within a fairly short period, a number of manuscripts of superior quality became available, mainly thanks to the work of the German scholar Tischendorf. These manuscripts, dated from the 4th and 5th centuries, presented a text that was at least free from the additions of a later age. It was only in the later part of the 19th century that new critical editions of the New Testament were produced.
From the 1830’s to the 1860’s two wealthy book collectors, Chester Beatty and Martin Bodmer, made available manuscripts written on papyrus that date from well before the 4th century. These early manuscripts come very close to the time when the New Testament was written. Today, for almost all New Testament books we have manuscripts dating earlier than the 4th century.
For such an early period as that between 100 to 300 AD it is more difficult to be confident about the date of a manuscript. Nevertheless, scholars are now in a fairly comfortable position to date papyrus manuscripts by comparing their handwriting. And we do not have to rely on manuscripts of the New Testament only. There are hundreds of papyrus manuscripts of Greek texts from this early period and hundreds of carefully written papyrus documents that show the same types of handwriting. These documents are very important for paleographers because they are often exactly dated.
This means that in the period 100-300 AD it is possible for paleographers to be more specific on the relative date of the papyrus manuscripts of the New Testament. A tiny papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John is still considered the oldest “manuscript” of the New Testament. This fragment has generally been dated to around 100 AD, which proves that the original Gospel of John was written earlier, viz. in the 1st century AD.
With the help of the earlier papyrus manuscripts, NT scholars have been able to establish that we now have a safe guide to the original text of the New Testament.
We do hope to hear your questions and comments. Please share any insightson the story of Matthew and why a tax man would follow Jesus?
For much of the material in this series I am indebted to Views of the Biblical World, vol. 5 “The New Testament,” edited by Michael Avi-Yonah Ph.D., 1961
See A Few Words of Hope and Wisdom from David Ben-Gurion in the introduction to this ground-breaking series on the World of the Bible.