(Wipf & Stock, 2010, ISBN 978-1-60608-556-1)
reviewed by Colin Patterson
|I wonder whether you would agree with me that a lot can be learned from paying attention to the way the story of a conflict is told. If so, then you’ll enjoy Robert Beck’s latest book, Banished Messiah. It explores the way that Matthew constructed the plot of his Gospel, so as to highlight the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. It’s the same approach as Beck took in his earlier book on Mark’s Gospel (Nonviolent Story), because, as Beck draws out, it makes sense to see Matthew’s Gospel as essentially Mark’s in outline, but interwoven with significant new material.
Beck makes illuminating parallels with popular narratives in order to highlight the essential shape of Matthew’s Gospel. He argues that a central feature of the plot is the rising tension between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. So at its simplest level, we have a hero and his opponents coming to a moment of final confrontation. The essential surprise is that the hero of the story will not resort to violence, and so the conflict is resolved in a way that has no classic precedent.
So far, this is no different from Mark’s Gospel. But Beck takes us into new territory by showing how Matthew uses a stock plot – one might call it “The Banished and Returned Prince” – to add an extra dimension to his reader’s understanding of Jesus’ nonviolent stance. You can see the parallels with, for example, The Lion King. By beginning the main action with the story of Herod and the Magi, Matthew is introducing us to a corrupt regime that at some stage will need to be purged. Jesus, the infant claimant to the throne, has to escape to safety and is raised in anonymity but eventually returns as the true king to Jerusalem. Jesus’ teaching – supplied at some length in Matthew – points to the strange way in which he will bring cleansing of the realm without armed overthrow of a regime: as Beck puts it, purge without payback. This message would speak strongly to Matthew’s own context, writing (Beck assumes) after the destruction of Jerusalem, and wishing to resist pressures within the community of believers in the Messiah, to resist the Roman empire more forcibly.
I like Beck’s way of pulling together insights from literature and theology, and found considerable food for thought in this readable book.