Friday, November 9, 2012

Oral Banquet

In the Temple courtyard in Jerusalem, Jesus was confronted by the Chief Priests, Pharisees, elders, and Teachers of the Law. They questioned Jesus about His authority to teach, but Jesus stopped their inquisition by asking them a question of His own about John the Baptist's baptism (Matthew 21:23-27, Mark 11:27-33, Luke 20:1-8). Then, with a parable, Jesus accused these leaders of not doing God's will, which was to follow John the Baptist's ways of repentance and righteousness (Matthew 21:28-32). Next, with the Parable of the Tenants, Jesus explained the Kingdom of God would be taken from them, and instead given to others.

Oral Banquet
Before the Gospels were written down, they were just a collection of remembered stories. Mark was the first of the Synoptic Gospels to collectively commit these stories to writing; at least some of them. Matthew and Luke both had additional stories to tell beyond the backbone rendered by Mark. Sometimes, Matthew and Luke had the same extra stories to tell. Well, almost the same. As we know from the telephone game, oral stories often lose some fidelity in their transmission. We will see some classic fidelity loss, and some theological issues, as we examine the Parable of the Grand Banquet/Wedding Feast.

Matthew 22:1-14 and Luke 14:16-24 both give us the same parable, in a manner of speaking. It is a parable of scorn directed against the Jews, or at least the Jewish elite of the Pharisees, Chief Priests, etc., and it goes like this:
A man (God) arranged a big banquet (Salvation/the Kingdom of God) and invited guests (Jews/Jewish elite) to it. When the banquet was ready, he sent for the guests, but those he had invited opted not to come to the banquet. The man got angry at these ungracious guests. So he invited anyone else that could be found (non-Jews/non-Jewish-elite/Gentiles) to eat at the banquet instead of the originally invited guests. (My paraphrase)
The core message of Matthew's and Luke's parable is the same. If you read either version right now, my paraphrase will match it. This suggests that the parable had the same original source. Unfortunately, that original source carried a huge theological blunder...

Through the parable, we see that God invited the Jews to His Kingdom, but they rejected it, so the Gentiles are coming in instead. This paints the Salvation of the Gentiles as an afterthought. Only because the original invitees rejected the invitation do these others get a shot at entering His Kingdom.

Quickly, we should also note that this parable contains an implied indicator that God's Kingdom was coming soon... way back then. Matthew 22:4 and Luke 14:17 both emphasize how the banquet was "now" ready. This is just a little more evidence that the end was near, or so they thought.

Despite both of these being the same core parable from the same original source, thanks to oral history fidelity loss, and perhaps each author's unique adjustments, Matthew's and Luke's version vary in significant ways:

Type of Banquet Wedding feast for the king's son (Jesus) - Matthew 22:2 A great banquet hosted by a certain man - Luke 14:16
The Host's Messenger(s) Multiple servants (prophets) - Matthew 22:3-4 Single servant (Jesus?) - Luke 14:17
Type of Rejection Refused, ignored, mistreated and killed the servants - Matthew 22:3-5 Excuses - Luke 14:18-20
The Host's Anger Sent an army to destroy the city (destruction of Jerusalem 70 C.E.) - Matthew 22:7 Refusal to let the original invitees taste the banquet - Luke 14:24
Alternate Guests Anyone, good and bad - Matthew 22:9-10 First the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame, then anyone - Luke 14:21-23
Host's Own Rejection The king rejected someone who had shown up without wedding clothes - Matthew 22:11-13 N/A
Additional Corollary Many are invited, but few will be chosen - Matthew 22:14 N/A

Matthew's completely unique content of the host's rejection of a guest on the end of the parable may have already been included by the time he heard the story. However, as mentioned in several other studies, Matthew appears to have had a tendency for aggregating material into his Gospel and adapting it as necessary. So it seems also possible, if not probable, that he wove this concept into his story from another small anecdote.

This would not be at all surprising for Matthew to do, especially when we consider another apparent and significant alteration: multiple servants who were mistreated and killed. These servants metaphorically represent the prophets that had been sent to the Jews by God throughout time, and it mimics the how the type of metaphorical servants were treated in the Parable of the Tenants which appears immediately before this one in Matthew's Gospel. So it appears that Matthew may have enhanced this parable to be even more pertinent to the story he was trying to tell.

With the Parable of the Tenants followed by this Parable of the Wedding Feast, Matthew presents a powerful, flowing, double scorn of the Jews for their rejection of all the times God had tried to call them back with the prophets. However, Luke's version has Jesus giving the parable much earlier time, while dining at a Pharisee's house, and in response to someone saying that those who are able to eat at the feast in the Kingdom of God are blessed (Luke 14:1-15). This divergent parable placement suggests further that it was passed down as an isolated anecdote, which the Gospel writers then tried to fit in the best way that they could.

One more of Matthew's adjustments is worth a second look as well. Many scholars think that Matthew, in its present form, was written after 70 C.E. So the additional content about the king sending an army to destroy the city, which is almost certainly meant to seem to be a prophetic allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., may have been added after the fact. It is easy to write prophesy about what has already happened.

Finally, just in case you doubt my premise of oral evolution in the tales of Jesus, just in case you think I am wrong and that these parables were actually different and spoken at the noted different times, we have one more resource to consult. In Saying 64 of the Gospel of Thomas, you will find the same parable, with yet another variation, but without preceding context to indicate where it belongs in Jesus' timeline. Coincidentally, it better matches the text of Luke than Matthew's enhanced version:
Jesus said, "A man had received visitors. And when he had prepared the dinner, he sent his servant to invite guests. He went to the first one and said to him, "My master invites you.' He said, 'I have claims against some merchants. They are coming to me this evening. I must go and give them my orders. I ask to be excused from the dinner.' He went to another and said, 'My master has invited you.' He said to him, 'I have just bought a house and am required for the day. I shall not have any spare time.' He went to another and said to him, 'My master invites you.' He said to him, 'My friend is going to get married, and I am to prepare the banquet. I shall not be able to come. I ask to be excused from the dinner.' He went to another and said to him, 'My master invites you.' He said to him, 'I have just bought a farm, and I am on my way to collect the rent. I shall not be able to come. I ask to be excused.' The servant returned and said to his master, 'Those whom you invited to the dinner have asked to be excused.' The master said to his servant, 'Go outside to the streets and bring back those whom you happen to meet, so that they may dine.' Businessmen and merchants will not enter the Places of My Father." (The Gospel of Thomas, as translated by Thomas O. Lambdin, B.P Grenfell, A.S. Hunt, and Bentley Layton.)


  1. We have to remember that these are the inspired word of God, and that the Holy Spirit had different matters to point up in each gospel, according to the character of the persons He inspired.

  2. Indeed, that is possible David. However, at this point in time, I consider it unlikely.

    When you look collectively across the Gospels and study the particular differences in each author by comparing them to the others, you notice patterns emerge in the types of changes that are made. Both Luke and Matthew appeared to have used Mark as their source, or backbone, of their Gospels, but Luke's edits are very much his own, while Matthew's aggregations also carry their own unique signature. If if was simply a matter of the Spirit saying different things at different times for different needs, I would expect a more randomized distribution in the types of changes that were made.

    Part of this is known as the "Synoptic Problem." Theologians have spilled a lot of ink on the subject in case you would like to study it deeper.

  3. Good post TWF. It's funny, I looked back at my notes from these stories and I completely missed the fact that going to the banquet was supposed to be like getting salvation. I was mostly just confused by the actions of the guy throwing the party.

  4. Thanks Hausdorff. Do not worry too much about missing it. There is a high degree of information density in the Gospels. I have even heard that density used in an argument to suggest that it must be God-inspired text. There are people who spend their whole lives drilling into the details of every little point, and I am sure that I have missed a LOT!

  5. That's hilarious, if information density is a sign of something being God-inspired then I guess God inspires a lot of academic papers.