Following the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew provides a chapter detailing several healing miracles performed by Yeshua. These mostly take place around Capernaum, which is Yeshua’s main base of operations for this part of the Gospel. Matthew’s concentration on the teachings and healings of Yeshua lend weight to the notion that Yeshua is the individual referred to by Flavius Josephus as The Egyptian, who was also identified as a miracle worker.
We also see, for the first time, Yeshua cautioning a beneficiary of his healing to not tell anyone, but to present himself to the Priest with the appropriate offering. The first person is a leper who approaches Yeshua on the street. He doesn’t ask to be healed but to be “clean”. This has a specific connotation in this context, since Leviticus provides many instructions on how someone becomes unclean and what to do about it. Usually the solution involves making a specified sacrifice at the Temple and waiting a prescribed time. Yeshua simply tells the man he’s clean and to go make the appropriate offering.
Next, he’s approached by an unlikely individual, a Roman centurion who explains that his servant is ill. Yeshua offers to go see him, but the centurion states that he’s not worthy to have Yeshua under his roof. Rome typically allowed its citizens to believe as they chose, so long as the emperor was venerated and the taxes were paid. Occasionally, an emperor, such as Caligula or Nero would insist on placing a statue of himself as a god in the Temple, which usually led to uprisings, but Tiberius and Claudius avoided arousing the ire of the population in this manner. Yeshua is impressed by the faith the centurion shows, and takes the opportunity to once again cast aspersions on the Temple authorities, before declaring the servant healed.
They head to Peter’s house, where they find his mother-in-law ill, and Yeshua heals her, so she gets up and sees to everyone’s needs. Much has been made of the women who surrounded Jesus, but this episode demonstrates that often they were performing domestic chores, as women in their time were expected to do. It’s highly likely that many of the women were spouses of the Apostles. Matthew once again cites Scripture to demonstrate another prophecy fulfilled.
This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”Matthew 8:17
This is from Isaiah 53:4, and is about the Suffering Servant, which many have interpreted to be about Jesus; but the way Matthew uses the passage, implies that the person spoken about is there to relieve the people’s suffering, not take it upon himself. The Messiah was not meant to be a sacrificial king, but an actual ruler who restored Judea. The Suffering Servant is reviled and beaten and suffers on behalf of the people. Perhaps it’s Matthew’s way of foreshadowing the story to come. He’s using the reference in the same way he’s using the contrasts to Moses, by suggesting Yeshua will take on a role not assigned to the Messiah. His reference was likely meant to be ironic, but over the years, people have taken it literally.
Noting the crowd that’s following him, Yeshua directs his entourage to cross “to the other side”. Matthew relates two incidents where Yeshua gives curious answers to entreaties made to him. First, a scribe pledges to follow him anywhere and Yeshua replies that while foxes and birds have homes, the Son of man has nowhere to rest. This may simply have been lamenting the demands of his mission and the attention it garners. When another disciple asks if he can leave to bury his father, Yeshua advises him to let the dead bury the dead. Since he’s placed himself in opposition to the authorities, however, he may have considered anyone not with them as unworthy of the Kingdom, and therefore dead in spirit.
This leads to their trip across the sea which is interrupted by the storm which Yeshua calms with his words. This also seems symbolic of the turmoil Yeshua’s followers might have felt in the wake of the Sermon on the Mount and the reaction of the crowd. Yeshua calms the storm of emotions his teachings inspired in them.
At last, they disembark in the land of the Gadarenes. This is another point where Matthew diverges from Mark. In Mark 5, the people of the country are identified as the Gerasenes, and we have this exchange with a man who’s possessed of demons:
…crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” And he begged him eagerly not to send them out of the country.Mark 5:7-10
In Matthew, at least in the RSV, the country is identified as that of the Gadarenes, and there are two demoniacs instead of one. There, the exchange is:
…two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many swine was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the swine; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and perished in the waters.Matthew 8:28-32
Matthew chooses to double the number of the demoniacs, yet they speak with one voice. It’s likely that Matthew intended this as symbolic of the region, since the area that contained Gadara was a strategic and well fortified location for many generations. Wikipedia states that it was traded back and forth between the Seleucids and Ptolomies which coincided with the time when Daniel was most likely written since the author of that text references multiple kingdoms following one another. It was annexed by Pompey when Rome claimed the region. Augustus placed the area under the control of Herod the Great, and following his death, it became part of the Roman province of Syria.
During the Jewish War that led to the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, the region was decimated by Vespasian, who established a garrison there. The two demoniacs of Matthew’s Gospel may represent the Seleucids and Ptolomies — historic oppressors of the population — whose rule was superseded by the Romans, who are symbolized by the swine. Following the incident with the demoniacs, the people of the region ask Yeshua to leave.
Mark relates John’s arrest under Herod Antipas, but otherwise does not give many clues to the historical period of his Gospel. Other than mention of “Herod” during the birth narrative — a name shared by several generations of that family — Matthew also doesn’t specify the historic period when his story is taking place, unlike Luke, who starts his Gospel during the reign of Caesar Augustus. John the Baptist was executed by one of the sons of Herod the Great, in retaliation for John condemning his marriage to his brother’s widow.
The fact that a major event in the Jewish uprising took place here raises an intriguing possibility for the timing of the events of Matthew’s Gospel. Flavius Josephus mentions The Egyptian as one of the Messianic contenders in the Jewish War which suggests the events Matthew is relating occurred during the uprising which took place between 66-70 CE instead of thirty or forty years prior.
Since Matthew is drawing from Jewish history and literature, he seems to be employing a common motif, anachronism, relating events in the present or the immediate past as occurring longer ago than they did. An important example is the Book of Daniel, which purports to be written during the Babylonian exile centuries before it was actually composed. Predating a story to an earlier period and giving it prophetic overtones has the advantage of shielding the author should the wrong people get their hands on it.
This would explain why Paul never mentions any personal details about Yeshua or his ministry in any of his letters, and why the Jerusalem Church is still in operation during the time he’s writing. The Gospels make it clear that Yeshua’s closest followers flee to Galilee in the wake of his crucifixion, yet Paul interacts with them in Jerusalem. This makes sense if the events depicted in the Gospel had not yet happened at the time Paul was writing, around 50 CE. We know from Paul’s epistles that there were numerous sects of proto-Christian congregations that didn’t always agree on doctrine or practices. If the events described in Mark and Matthew happened in the lead up to the sack of Jerusalem, this would also explain why the first accounts of them only appear after the Temple was destroyed. Matthew’s followers would have appreciated the ironic intentions of Matthew reinterpreting Mark’s cautionary tale about the dangers of Messianic uprisings.