NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
In the Jewish Mishnah, we read the following law concerning those accused of blasphemy, such as Jesus was: “The blasphemer is liable only if he utters [the Divine] Name. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karhah says: The entire day [of the trial,] the witnesses are examined by means of a substitute for the Divine Name. When the trial is finished, however, the accused must not be executed by [a testimony given using] a substitution. Rather, all persons [who were not absolutely necessary to the case] are removed [from the courtroom], and the chief witness was told, state exactly what you heard. Thereupon, he did so [using the Divine Name]. The judges then stood up and rent their garments, which were not resewn [in a manner so that the tear is no longer noticeable].” Thus the veil, like the garment of the ordinary priest, was torn from top to bottom. And while the blood of a lamb was sprinkled on the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies, in this case, the blood of the Lamb of God was sprinkled on God’s Mercy Seat – the cross, for all the world to see.
The term, “Divine Name,” was a reference to what God said to Moses who asked Him to identify Himself. God replied: “I AM WHO I AM.”1 In order not to disrespect God’s name, in Jewish literature it is referred to as “Ha-Shem,” which means, “The Name.”In Judaism 101 it is explained this way: “The most important of God’s Names is the four-letter Name represented by the Hebrew letters Yod-Hei-Vav-Hei (YHVH). It is often referred to as the Ineffable Name, the Unutterable Name, or the Distinctive Name. Linguistically, it is related to the Hebrew root Hei-Yod-Hei (to be), and reflects the fact that God’s existence is eternal. In scripture, this Name is used when discussing God’s relation with human beings, and when emphasizing his qualities of lovingkindness and mercy. It is frequently shortened to Yah (Yod-Hei), Yahu or Yeho (Yod-Hei-Vav), especially when used in combination with names or phrases, as in Yehoshua (Joshua, meaning ‘the Lord is my Salvation’), Eliyahu (Elijah, meaning ‘my God is the Lord’), and Halleluyah (‘praise the Lord’).”2 When you see the name of God in most Jewish literature, it is always printed as, “G-d.”
Verses 51b-53: Also, the earth shook and rocks shattered. The graves were unsealed, and many of God’s people who were sleeping were raised from death. They walked out of the graves. And after Jesus was raised from death, they went into the holy city, and many people saw them.
It is worthy to note that Matthew says, “they who were sleeping,” arose. The Aramaic Version puts it the same way. They came out of their tombs and were seen walking around in Jerusalem. There is no record that any of them stayed for long, or went back to their families as Lazarus did. It also points out that all the graves were outside the walls of the city, that’s why they had to enter the city.
A great Jewish teacher makes this very clear, “Every city is given a cemetery outside these boundaries, for they do not bury their dead within their cities: as [implied by Numbers 31:3]: ‘The residential area will be for their animals, their property, and all their vital needs.’ [This land] was given ‘for their vital needs’ and not for burial.”3
But Matthew makes something quite plain in this verse that many fail to see. It is accepted by Bible scholars that v. 52 tells us that upon the initial quake, the graves split open and the dead saints rose to walk the streets. But here in v. 53, Matthew clearly points out that these saints did not rise until after Christ had risen Himself. These two verses, then, should have been combined as one, not two. This then preserves Christ’s position as the first fruit of the resurrection.
The early church bishop of Laodicea has this to say about these resurrected saints: “The raising up of the saints’ bodies was announcing that the death of Christ was actually the cause of life. They certainly were not made visible prior to the Lord’s resurrection, since it was necessary that the resurrection of the Savior first be made known. Then those raised through Him were seen. It is plain that they have died again, having risen from the dead in order to be a sign. For it was not possible for only some of the firstborn from the dead to be raised to the life of the age to come, but the remainder [must be raised] in the same manner. Now, Luke says that the crowd passing by ‘beat their breasts and went away.’4 Thus the divine superiority did not escape the notice of the Jews, either in the Passion itself or in the obscurity of the Savior. But habitual human forgetfulness held them fast, and the deceit of the teachers led many astray.”5
Verse 54: The army officer and the soldiers guarding Jesus felt this earthquake and saw everything that happened. They were very afraid and said, “He really was the Son of God!”
This earthquake proved to be a wake-up call for those soldiers guarding the scene around the cross. There is something in the response of the officer in charge and his detail that makes me think that somewhere and somehow the fact that Jesus was being called the Son of God had reached his ears. Of course, there are some critics who would say that since the Romans believed in their gods having sons who came to earth, that they were, in fact, saying, “Truly, He is the son of one of the gods,” such as Romulus and Remus. But such thinking is severely flawed because no such circumstances as a crucifixion ever accompanied the revelation of these gods. The centurion and his soldier’s reaction was one of awe and respect, not fear and anxiety.
Jerome puts it this way: “Another Gospel6 demonstrates more clearly the cause of the centurion’s astonishment after the shaking of the earth. It wasn’t until after he had seen Christ give up the spirit that he said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God,’ for no one has the power to give up the spirit except He who is the Creator of souls. Here we can understand ‘soul’ for ‘spirit’ because the soul animates the body and makes it spiritual and because the spirit is the substance of the soul itself, as it is written: ‘You take away their spirits and they cease to be.’7”8
Verses 55-56: Many women were standing some distance from the cross, watching. These were the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for Him. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of James and John were there.
But there were other witnesses that Matthew names, and they were all women. Of course, we know about Mary Magdelene. Mary the mother of James and Jose (Joseph) is identified with the Mary we read about earlier.9 And of course Mary to mother to the sons of Zebedee, James and John. In reading this list of names in several commentaries, it is clear that all of them agree that Mary Magdalene, was the one from the village of Magdala up in Galilee on the southwestern coast of the Sea of Galilee. Several also point to her as the one out of whom Jesus cast seven demons. Philip Schaff and C. J. Ellicott in their commentaries point out that some have confused her with the sinful woman who anointed our Lord’s feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee,10 and others with Mary, the sister of Lazarus (who anointed our Lord in Bethany).11
The next Mary is identified as the mother of James and Jose, which is short for Joseph. There is quite a bit of uncertainty about her identity. Perhaps the clearest reference is where she is standing near the cross with Mary, the mother Jesus, and identified as Mary’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas or Cleopas or Cleophas.12 One thing you learn about the names of people and places that are translated from Hebrew to Greek and Greek to English, there are always numerable differences in spelling. Since Cleopas was one of those Jesus walked with on the road to Emmaus, which has been identified as the brother of Joseph, the husband of Mary the mother of Jesus, then instead of sister it should read “sister-in-law.”
1 Exodus 13:3
3 Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Sefer Zeraim, Tractate Shemitta, Ch.13, Halacha 3
4 Luke 23:48
5 Apollinaris: Commentary fragment 144
6 Luke 23:47
7 Psalm 104:29
8 Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Bk. 4, Ch. 27:54
9 See Matthew 13:55-56
10 Luke 7:37 – (See Schaff and Ellicott Commentary, loc. cit.)
11 Matthew 26:6-13
12 John 19:25