Sermon: “Same Scripture, Countless Interpretations” (Matthew 17)

It is illegitimate for anyone to blame the Bible for their hate, apathy, or vengefulness. I would invite you to consider further that whatever does not lead to love, compassion, forgiveness, justice, mercy, and grace — what Paul called “the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23) — has strayed from the way of God as revealed in the life of Jesus.”

Same Scripture, Countless Interpretations

The Rev. J. Carl Gregg        

25 September 2011

Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland

22 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Human One is going to be betrayed into human hands, 23 and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” And they were greatly distressed.

Matthew 17:22-23

Last week’s sermon mostly set aside historical-critical matters of looking “behind the text” for what actually happened — questions such as, “Did the historical Jesus say the words ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.’” As we saw, the short answer is probably not. The rationale hinges on a number of factors, and I will briefly name two of the most prominent reasons.

First, the announcement about Peter being the “rock” is only made in Matthew’s Gospel. This sole attestation leads many scholars to argue that this claim “reflects Peter’s position in Matthew’s branch of the emerging Christian movement,” not the words of the historical Jesus.

Second, it is highly doubtful that Jesus ever spoke the word “church,” at least not in the sense we understand the word. The word church only occurs four times in the whole of the canonical Gospels, and all four instances occur in The Gospel According to Matthew: the one time in Matthew 16 we have already seen regarding Peter and three more times in chapter 18 regarding how to deal with the ethical dilemma of “If another member of the church sins against you….” The historical Jesus spoke frequently about the kingdom (or reign) of God, but, just as the language of Peter being a rock “reflects Peter’s position in Matthew’s branch of the emerging Christian movement,” so too the word “church” in reference to a Christian gathering reflects a term that post-dates Jesus.

Of course, the word “church” appears many times in Paul’s letters, but the first of those letters were written twenty years after Jesus’ death. Perhaps I should also add that the word “church,” which can also be translated as “congregation,” is not original to Christianity. The word for church in the original Greek is ekklesia, which had long been used as a Greco-Roman political term. “It denotes the ‘duly summoned’ civic and political assembly of citizens in the Greek cities which along with a council expressed the will of the assembled people.” So just as calling Jesus “lord” was a political statement that, “Caesar is not lord,” calling a gathering of Christians a “church” or “congregation” or “ekklesia” intentionally implied that the way of Jesus is an alternative to the way of Rome.

I have raised these points about last week’s scripture as an example that there are substantive historical-critical issues that we could have pursued last week in much greater detail. Indeed, many of the points I have raised so far this morning derive from what is known as an “empire-critical” method of reading the Bible that deals particularly with how our interpretation of the text changes if we focus in on what it means that this particular text was written in the context of the Roman Empire. But instead of focusing of these sort of questions that seek to use the text to, so to speak, “look behind the text” at the historical context, we focused last week on the narrative/rhetorical questions which are are, so to speak, “within the text.” Both of these approaches are equally legitimate, if quite different, interpretive strategies.

Further, at the end of last week’s sermon we entered into a third major area of biblical interpretation. Instead of looking “behind the text” or “in the text,” we turned our attention “in front of the text” to consider, “On what kind of rock do we want Broadview Church to be built?” Within each of these three divisions “behind the text,” “in the text,” and “in front of the text” are many different interpretive sub-strategies.

Without going into a lot of details, if you are looking to peak “behind” the text, then you could use the historical-critical method (to consider the original context), source criticism (to consider the sources used the write the text), form criticism (to reflect on the oral tradition proceeding the text), Redaction Criticism (the way sources were edited), or canonical criticism (which is similar to our method last week of looking at the fuller context of Peter within the entire Gospel of Matthew, except that a full-fledged canonical study would look at Peter within the context of the entire Bible).

For example, another interesting direction we could’ve taken with last week’s sermon would have been to use Redaction criticism to explore how Matthew adapted this morning’s scripture passage from Mark 9:30-32. Mark’s Gospel preceded Matthew by at least a decade and Matthew had a copy of The Gospel According to Mark on his desk when he was compiling The Gospel According to Matthew. But if you look closely you’ll notice that whereas Mark’s version says that the disciples did “not understand” Jesus, Matthew has softened this editorial remark to say that the disciples were “sad.” Of course, neither Mark nor Matthew is “right” about what actually happened to the historical Jesus and the historical disciples because, as we have seen, this whole biblical story emerged out of the oral tradition of the early church, not out of the life of the historical Jesus. But it is nevertheless significant to note the artistic license that Matthew felt empowered to take with changing the scriptural tradition to make the disciples look less clueless (as they look in Mark’s version) and instead make them merely “sad.” There are many more examples of how Matthew and Luke changed Mark to be more in line with his editorial preferences, but let us, for now, return to our brief survey of interpretation methods.

To turn our attention to “in front of the text,” we could use Feminist Criticism, Intertextuality, Reader-Response Criticism, or many other options. There are many more methods in each of these categories, and I’ll make a note at the end of the manuscript version of the sermon to some resources that explain these methods in more detail. But my point is that there are so many different ways to legitimately interpret the Bible or any other text — and arguably an infinite number of potential interpretations. My “Introduction to Hebrew Bible” professor in seminary, Toni Craven, would often say that, “The gates of exegesis are never closed.” She was quoting biblical scholar Uriel Simon who said that,

Each generation produces its own Bible commentaries in accordance with what it finds perplexing, it’s exegetical methods, and its emotional and spiritual needs. A generation that shirks its duty of reinterpretation is shutting its ears to the message that the Bible has to offer. The gates of exegesis are not shut and never will be; each generation has its own special key.

But individuals are often not aware of what interpretative choices they are making or why. And the result of making interpretative choices unconsciously is that we tend to interpret the text in a way that is easiest on us. 

Two weeks ago in a sermon titled, “How Do You Read the Bible,” I referred to a Latin phrase, “Cui bono?” which invites us to ask “To whose benefit?”” In other words, we should ask, when evaluating various methods of reading the Bible, “Who benefits from this interpretation?” Do the rich and powerful benefit, resulting in a solidification of the status quo (because the word “tradition” is often a cypher for wanting to keep society the same — not necessarily as it once was, but as it currently is)? Or, does your biblical interpretation give all people, including the poor and marginalized, new hope and new life?

The pliability of interpretative methods leads Dale Martin, a biblical scholar at Yale, to go so far as to say that each individual who interprets the Bible is responsible for the “truth, goodness, morality, and social effect” of her or his biblical interpretation. People throughout history have used the Bible to affirm both slavery and emancipation, sexism and equality, violence and nonviolence. I could continue listing examples, but the point is that if your interpretation leads to hate, apathy, and vengefulness instead of love, compassion, and forgiveness, then I would invite you to consider that the problem is as much or more with your interpretation than with the Bible. And that it is illegitimate for anyone to blame the Bible for their hate, apathy, or vengefulness. I would invite you to consider further that whatever does not lead to love, compassion, forgiveness, justice, mercy, and grace — what Paul called the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) — has strayed from the way of God as revealed in the life of Jesus.

I feel like I could fruitfully end this morning’s sermon here, but in the spirit of full disclosure, all that I have said so far — although I hope worthwhile in and of itself — was also meant as a set-up for our scripture focus for today. My point in revisiting Matthew 16 was to show how many different interpretive paths we could have followed last week. Because for this week’s scripture, I want to move in a very different direction. Instead of focusing “in the text” and on the narrative and rhetorical features concerning Peter’s appearances in Matthew’s Gospel, I want to shift gears to look “behind the text” of Matthew 17.

I invite you to listen again to this week’s scripture: “As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, ‘The Human One is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” And they were greatly distressed.’” Similar to the sense in which the way the claims about being the “Rock” and the anachronistic use of the word church reflect the situation on the ground  in Matthew’s branch of the emerging Christian movement decades after Jesus’ death more than they do what actually happened in the life of the historical Jesus, most scholars agree that the scenes in which Jesus predicts precise details about his death or his Resurrection reflect Christian theology that developed after Jesus’ death not theology that he espoused during his life.

It is quite possible that Jesus could have had — and could have talked about — the very real reality that actions such as turning over the tables in the Temple during Passover could lead to a quick and likely fatal retaliation from the Roman Empire, but specific details more likely come from the early church and not from the historical Jesus.

Another interesting detail of our scripture for this morning that some of you may have noticed is the choice to translate Jesus’ title for himself that we are accustomed to hearing as “Son of Man” differently as “The Human One.” Listen again: “As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, ‘The Human One is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” A major new biblical translation called the Common English Bible consistently translates “Son of Man” as “The Human One.”

I was excited to see this translation decision because I have long been a fan of biblical scholars such as Walter Wink, who have supported this rendering as a more sensible English translation. Some of you will recall a sermon I preached on Mark 8 titled “The Truly Human One” that made this point.

In general, I am supportive of the people and groups behind the Common English Bible such as the Disciples of Christ (Chalice Press); the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (Westminster John Knox Press); the Episcopal Church (Church Publishing Inc); the United Church of Christ (Pilgrim Press); and the United Methodist Church (Abingdon Press). And I applaud its goal of readability. But I will likely still continue to use the New Revised Standard Version as my primary study Bible because the NRSV is aimed at a high school reading level, whereas the CEB is intentionally aimed at a middle school reading level. The higher reading level of the NRSV allows for more nuance. And although I also appreciate the many bold translation decisions the CEB has made such as calling Jesus the “Human One” instead of the “Son of Man,” the NRSV retains more of the majesty of language which comes from it being in the same translation lineage as the King James Bible.

For this morning suffice it to say that the choice to translate Jesus’ title for himself as the “Human One,” not only connects Jesus’ title for himself to the many places where “Son of Man” or “Human One” occur in the Hebrew Bible, but also allow us to see that Jesus is saying, “Look to me as an example of what means to fully embrace to the human experience,” to make the most of your humanity, to be fully alive.

As the early church father Irenaeus would say more than a century later, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive!” So as followers of Jesus called to be fully alive, let us embrace our freedom and responsibility to interpret the Bible and all other texts in ways that lead to love, compassion, forgiveness, justice, mercy, and grace.

For Further Study


1 “Last week’s sermon on Peter” — see “On What Kind of Rock Is The Church Built?” (Matthew 16).

2 “reflects Peter’s position in Matthew’s branch of the emerging Christian movement” — see Robert Funk, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, 207.

3 Ekklesia — see Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Bible & Liberation), 335.

4 intentionally contrasted the way of Jesus with the way of Rome.” — see John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now or Richard A. Horsley, Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society

5 “There are many more examples of how Matthew changed Mark to be more in line with his editorial preferences” (so too did Luke) — see Burton H. Throckmorton Jr., Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels, NRSV Edition.

6The gates of exegesis are not shut and never will be; each generation has its own special key.” — see Uriel Simon, Jonah, JPS Bible Commentary, 1990: vi.

7 Our scripture focus is the second of three places in Matthew in which Jesus is said to have predicted precise details of his own death. The other two are 16:21, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” and 20:18-19, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Human One will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”

8 For more on how details about Jesus’ death derive more from the early church than the historical Jesus, see John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus?.

9 For more on the Common English Bible’s translation choice of “The Human One,” see

10 For my sermon on “The Truly Human One,” visit

11 For more examples of the Common English Bible’s translation decisions, see

12 The title “Son of Man,” has a long and complex history of meaning. Scholars report that the phrase, “Son of man” occurs 108 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Interestingly, 93 of these 108 times occur in the book of Ezekiel. Scholars have increasingly found the translation of this title as “Son of man” to be unhelpful.  Some have suggested “Son of Adam” or “Son of Humanity.”

For an accessible study of the title “Son of Man,” see Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man.  The statistics of this phrases’ occurrence are from Wink 17.  Of particular interest is “Appendix 3: Ezekiel’s Influence on Jesus” (Wink 267-269). As another point of reference, New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado, who has co-edited a book of essays on  Who is This Son of Man? has summarized his own conclusion as follows: “1)  “The Son of Man” in the Gospels wasn’t an early Christian christological title.  It didn’t in itself carry any particular connotative force (beyond the particularizing force of the article) or serve the function of a christological title. Instead, it functions linguistically as a self-referential device ascribed to Jesus. It is a feature of Jesus’ distinctive speech-habits, his ‘voice’ or ‘idiolect.’ 2)  The most economical and cogent explanation for this is that Jesus likely did use the expression as a distinctive self-referential device. Jesus’ use of the expression likely reflected a conviction that he had a special mission/role in the coming of the Kingdom of God. That is, the particularizing force of the Aramaic definite form (e.g., bar enasha) or the Hebrew articular form (e.g., ben ha-adam, forms which I emphasize seem to have been quite unusual) would have been evident to native users of the languages, Jesus referring to himself, thus, as something like ‘the/this man.’  (I demur, thus, from the suggestions of some others, e.g., Darrell Bock’s essay in this same volume, that Jesus coined the term specifically as a reference to the ‘one like a son of man’ figure in Daniel 7:13-14). 3) The diversity of sayings in the Gospels in which the expression is used shows that the expression ‘the Son of Man’ does not in itself make a specific claim, but it is the sentences in which it is used that characterize him and various make claims about him.”

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