Friday, September 28, 2012

Enter, Stage Jerusalem

In the final stretch of Jesus' Jerusalem approach, Jesus prophesied His impending death, and some Disciples argued over which of them would be given great honor in the coming Kingdom. Then, somewhere around Jericho, Jesus healed one or two blind men as He was arriving or leaving the town (Matthew 20:29-34, Mark 10:46-52, Luke 18:35-43). Luke also relays that Jesus Saved Zacchaeus, but gave the Parable of Minas to emphasize how Salvation comes with responsibility. At least, that is according to the Synoptic Gospels.

According to John, Jesus resurrected His dear friend Lazarus in Bethany (~2 miles/3.2 km from Jerusalem); the news of that miracle and its associated conversions of believers prompted the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem to plot to kill Jesus. This forced Jesus to withdraw to a small desert town (John 11:54). Meanwhile, the Sanhedrin put out orders for Jesus' arrest (John 11:55-57). Six days before Passover, Mary (one of Lazarus' sisters) anointed Jesus with perfume at a feast held in His honor, and large crowds of Jews came to see both the recently-resurrected Lazarus and Jesus (John 12:1-11).

Enter, Stage Jerusalem
Does a prophesy count as being fulfilled if you force the sign to happen? I would think not. Generally you want a sign of prophesy to be something of reasonable difficulty to fulfill so that you know that either only divine wisdom could have predicted it or divine effort could have brought it to fruition. Think of the tale of King Arthur pulling the sword, Excalibur, from the stone. Now, what if the prophesy had been simply that the would-be King Arthur would ride a donkey instead? Not so impressive, right? However, if you are looking for support for your claim of divinely authorized kingship, any shred of prophesy, no matter how trivial, will do.

Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-44, and John 12:12-19 all record Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. What exactly happened? That depends on which Gospel you consult. So let us start with Mark, being that it is the primary source for the story used by Matthew and Luke.

According to Mark 11:1-10, as Jesus and His Disciples approached Bethphage and Bethany, Jesus had two Disciples go borrow a donkey's colt from the village by saying "The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly." They brought it back to Jesus, who then rode the colt the rest of the way into Jerusalem. "Many people" (likely the followers of Jesus) spread their cloaks and branches in the road in front of Him; roughly the ancient equivalent of rolling out the red carpet to honor Him as Lord (reference Leviticus 23:40). Those people joyously shouted about Jesus coming in God's Name, and the coming "Kingdom of our father David."

What is the deal with Jesus riding the colt? That comes from Zechariah 9:9 (which is misquoted in Matthew 21:5 and John 12:15):
"Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." NIV
There are a few different ways to render that verse, but you get the basic vision here: the king will be riding humbly on a donkey's colt. Jesus makes this happen, purposefully arriving into Jerusalem via colt-back in order to fulfill the prophesy, but did that really fulfill the prophesy?

Read Zechariah 9, and it may yield you a different impression. In the beginning, Zechariah 9:1-8 is largely about God's wrath against Hadrach, Damascus, Hamath, Tyre, Sidon, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, and Ashnod, and ending in Zechariah 9:8 with God's promise that:
"But I (God) will defend My house against marauding forces. Never again will an oppressor overrun My people, for now I am keeping watch." NIV

The mention of wrath on those foreign nations of a bygone era suggests that the opportunity to fulfill this prophesy has passed by now, but we have seen God's people, a.k.a. the Jews, oppressed time and time again. Obviously, the prophesy has failed.

Yet the prophesy of Zechariah 9 could be in two sections, as Jewish manuscripts have indicated using spacing to suggest two separate sections. The second section begins at the donkey-riding verse. So what do we find within Zechariah 9:9-17?

In Zechariah 9:10, we see that this king will rule in peace from the Euphrates River in the east to the western ends of the land. Zechariah 9:12 speaks of God restoring twice what people (implicitly the Jews) had before (implicitly before their exile). Zechariah 9:13-15 speaks of the Jews going to war against the Greeks, and defeating them with little effort thanks to God's help! This does not match up with Christianity; at least not today's Christianity.

There are three ways to reconcile with this prophesy: One way, the most common modern way, is to spin the interpretation of the rest of the prophesy such that it refers to sometime after Jesus' Second Coming, when Jesus will rule in eternal peace after the ultimate battle between good and evil. The second way is to suggest that the early Christians did believe that the rest of the prophesy would be carried out very soon since Jesus had initiated the sequence of events as described. The third way is that either Jesus or the person who crafted this part of the story was taking advantage of the Zechariah verse out of context to bolster support for the Jesus-as-the-Messiah claim. I believe that the third way is most probable based on other prophesies misused by the Gospel writers, but note that these three options may all be accurate simultaneously. :-)

OK, back to Mark for a quick wrap up. After this triumphant entry in to Jerusalem, Mark 11:11 ends on a hilariously anticlimactic note:
Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the Temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, He went out to Bethany with the Twelve. NIV

Yeah. It is late. There is not much going on here, and I am a little tired... Now if you thought that was funny, or at least a little odd, let us take a quick look at how Matthew tweaked the story.

Because of the slightly vague language in the Zachariah 9:9 verse, Matthew 21:1-7 has Jesus ride both a donkey and her colt simultaneously! As opposed to Mark's version which seemed like Jesus' entry pageant consisted of Jesus' pre-existing followers, Matthew 21:8-11 suggests that a very large crowd attended, and "the whole city was stirred" due to the event. Finally, when Jesus entered the Temple area that day, Matthew 21:12-13 has Jesus chase off the merchants and money changers; an event which Mark 11:12-18 claims happened the following day.

Luke is much less comical, and actually takes on a dark aspect. Luke 19:28-35 has Jesus only riding the colt. Luke 19:36-40 explicitly agrees with what Mark implied; that the crowds were just Jesus-following disciples. Contrasting Matthew's city-wide recognition of Jesus' entry, in Luke 19:41-44, in a tone which could be taken as antisemitic, Jesus condemns Jerusalem with a prophesy of siege and capture for not recognizing Him. (This "prophesy" likely indicates Luke was written after the event happened in 70 C.E.) Luke 19:45 also has Jesus drive out the merchants from the Temple area that same day.

Finally we come to John where, siding with Matthew's version but contrasting Luke's version, a great crowd of people ushered Jesus into Jerusalem, even proclaiming that He was the "King of Israel" in John 12:12-13. However, as opposed to sending disciples to get a donkey for Him, in John 12:14-16 Jesus got His own colt to ride. John 12:17-19 explains that the massive crowd welcoming Jesus had been largely influenced by Lazarus' resurrection, such that Pharisees remarked "how the whole world has gone after [Jesus]!" John does not record Jesus going immediately to the Temple area, or clearing out the merchants at that time, because he had recorded that a long, long time ago in John 2:12-17.

In summary, the prophesy regarding Jesus' donkey-riding has been taken out of context, so it cannot apply. Furthermore, the accounts vary far too much across the four Gospels to be taken as a whole as factual. This evidence suggests that either no such triumphant entry pageant took place, or that it did happen but the story that we have in the Gospels has been embellished beyond what actually occurred.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Lazarus, Lying About

We are about to enter Jerusalem on Jesus' final approach there, but lately we have been tracking along the Synoptic Gospel route, where just before this study we discussed Luke's Parable of the Minas. Now we need to catch up to the same point in the Gospel of John. In John's timeline, recently Jesus had an altercation with the Jews in the Temple in Jerusalem, where Jesus told them that they should believe in Him because of the miracles He has performed, despite the fact that God said in the Old Testament that miracles were not enough to prove a prophet. They tried to seize Him there, but He escaped and went across the Jordan river to the region where John the Baptist had been baptizing. There, many people believed in Jesus based on John the Baptist's words (John 10:39-42).

Lazarus, Lying About
Resurrections, up until modern medical technology, training, and definitions came into play, have been very rare events, but they have historically happened. At least some of them were due to a lack of an accurate assessment of the condition of death. As recently as 1882, a patent was granted for a "safety coffin" to prevent killing a person through "premature" burial. Yet the concept of someone passing from life to death, and then back to life again, is so enticing that such mistaken "deaths" may have worked their way into mythology.

The Bible records many resurrections, besides Jesus' own resurrection and those involving the yet-unfulfilled prophesies. Elijah resurrected a dead boy by lying on him three times, and with God's help (1 Kings 17:17-24). Elisha also laid on a dead boy, but only twice, to bring him back alive (2 Kings 4:18-37). Contact with the dead Elisha's bones brought a man back to life (2 Kings 13:20-21). Jesus resurrected a widow's son by touching his coffin (Luke 7:11-17). Jesus resurrected a girl by taking the girl's hand and telling her to get up (Matthew 9:18-26, Mark 5:21-43, Luke 8:40-56). There are some verses which imply other unmentioned resurrections by Jesus (Matthew 11:5, Luke 7:22) and the Disciples (Matthew 10:8). After Jesus died, many "Holy people" came back to life and visited Jerusalem (Matthew 27:51-53). Peter raised a woman from the dead by prayer and telling her to get up (Acts 9:36-42). Some people consider the incident where Paul was stoned to be a case of resurrection (Acts 14:19-20). Paul (in a sense) talked to death a man named Eutychus and later resurrected him by lying on him and hugging him (Acts 20:7-12). Finally, Hebrews 11:35 possibly suggests some additional resurrections, but may be referencing the Elijah- and Elisha-based resurrections stated above instead.

There is one more Biblical resurrection which is arguably more famous than any of the ones mentioned above, except Jesus' resurrection: Lazarus. In John 11:1-46, we find the story of Lazarus' resurrection through Jesus. John's Gospel is the only one that records this resurrection. Keep that fact in mind, because it is going to become more and more strange as the story progresses.

John 11:1-5 sets the stage. Two sisters, Mary and Martha, and their brother, Lazarus, all live in the village of Bethany. Lazarus has become deathly ill. Jesus loved all three of them; not in the Jesus-loves-everyone kind of sentiment, but rather in the Jesus-has-a-close-relationship kind of love. In fact, when their brother was close to death, they sent word to Jesus to say "Lord, the one you love is sick." They did not even bother to say Lazarus' name; they knew that Jesus would know who they were referring to.

Speaking of knowing things, Jesus portrays divine omniscience in this event. In John 11:4 we see His response:
When He heard this, Jesus said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it." NIV
Here, Jesus knows the end of the event before it takes place. Also interesting is the puzzle that this will happen for God's glory; where this is the glorification of Jesus. Or, in other words, honoring Jesus honors God. This could mean that Jesus is God, or it could be that Jesus is God's anointed one, so that honor for Jesus vicariously yields honor for God. But with Jesus showing omniscience here, there is a logical bias towards the former perspective.

Now because Jesus knows the end from the beginning, He stays where He is for a couple days before going to visit Lazarus, long enough to ensure that he has died. When He tells His Disciples that it is time to go to Judea, they fear for His personal safety there because the Jews had recently tried to kill him there (John 10:39), but ultimately they decide to go with Him there; choosing to all die together if it comes to that (John 11:6-16).

From that section, in John 11:14-15 Jesus provides these interesting words:
So then [Jesus] told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." NIV
We can see that this whole episode is being orchestrated, at least in part, so that the Disciples will believe. Why, did they not believe? On the contrary, when Jesus was gathering these "fishers of men," they were certain that Jesus was the Messiah (John 1:41), the one written about by Moses (John 1:45), the Son of God and King of Israel (John 1:49). The sincerity of their beliefs had been confirmed in John 6:67-69 after Jesus taught about the exclusivity of Salvation which caused several other followers to leave. Anyway...

As the story continues, Jesus and the Disciples arrived when Lazarus was long dead, having been entombed for four days. Martha met Jesus on His way there, and she confirmed her faith in Him. Mary came out to meet Him later, followed by several other Jews in mourning. Jesus wept. The Jews admired His love for Lazarus and wondered if He could have prevented his death (John 11:17-37).

There is a lot to say about the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35: "Jesus wept." This is the only place where Jesus wept recorded any of the Gospels. To see Jesus weep, for Jesus to have had such a public display of loss of a loved one, should have been a memorable experience, but we do not find this story in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. And why is Jesus crying? Jesus knew before it happened that Lazarus would be back alive in just a short time. Plus, as we will see, this soon-to-happen miraculous event will result in many new converts. These are very understandable reasons why Jesus would have no reason to cry. So where is that peace "which transcends all understanding" that Paul spoke about in Philippians 4:6-7 in Jesus?

The event concludes at Lazarus' tomb, where Jesus requested for the tomb to be opened. Martha protests because the body would surely stink by then. The tomb is opened. Jesus prays publicly just for the benefit of people watching Him, and then commanded Lazarus to walk out. Lazarus miraculously walks out, still bound in his funerary wraps (John 11:38-44)... the miracle being that he did not trip and fall due to those wrappings. ;-)

Fun Fact: Bethany, where this alleged event occurred, is only about two miles from Jerusalem (John 11:18).

The resurrection of Lazarus made an immediate impact; converting believers and spreading the news of the miracle (John 11:45-46). This resulted in large crowds coming to see the resurrected Lazarus and to put their faith in Jesus (John 12:9-11). In fact, this miracle had such an impact in converting believers that one Pharisee remarked that "the whole world has gone after Him!" (John 12:17-19)

Furthermore, the Gospel of John suggests that this miracle was the impetus for Jesus' crucifixion! While various Jews had tried to kill Jesus previous times (John 5:16-18, John 7, John 8:31-59, John 10:22-39), it was not until this event do we find that the Chief Priests and Pharisees of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem met and decided to plot to kill Jesus in John 11:47-53.

That Sanhedrin meeting is worth exploring deeper for a moment. It was called when Sanhedrin members heard of the resurrection of Lazarus and the story's efficacy in converting people to follow Jesus (John 11:45-47). Somehow, John provides recorded dialog of what was said in that meeting of elite religious rulers, despite not having any eyewitness from among Jesus' disciples there. The main concern expressed during the meeting was that everyone would start following Jesus instead of the Priests and Pharisees, which would then lead to the Romans stripping away the Sanhedrin's authority (John 11:47-48). (Based on the historical persistence of Jewish belief in the time of Jesus and thereafter, this was obviously an unfounded concern.) The best part of this dialog came from the Roman-appointed (not God anointed) High Priest Caiaphas, who allegedly had himself received a prophesy that year that Jesus would die for their nation and for the scattered Children of God. Caiaphas said that it would be good to Jesus to die for the sake of the nation (John 11:49-52). So when the Sanhedrin arrived at the conclusion to try to kill Jesus, it seems more like they are trying to do God's work and help to fulfill prophesy rather than acting out of their selfish interests (John 11:53)!

So let us review the situation we have here: Jesus had a loving relationship the small family of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Lazarus became terminally ill. Jesus heard about the illness, but let Lazarus die; explicitly so that His Disciples would believe in Him through the events which would follow. Jesus' Disciples were concerned about His safety in traveling so close to Jerusalem. Jesus wept after arriving there. Jesus resurrected His beloved friend Lazarus. Many people were converted because of that miracle. The massive conversions triggered a meeting of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. The High Priest had prophesied earlier that year that Jesus would die for the sake of God's Children. The Sanhedrin plotted to kill Jesus at that meeting.

This was not a trivial event, nor was it a typical story which had been played out time and time again, such that it would be easy to forget or regard with little significance. This was major; both in scope and in impact. Yet three of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, do not even hint at this event occurring. Matthew and Mark show absolutely no knowledge of the family of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Luke does mention sisters named Martha and Mary, but does so in regards to a relatively trivial event by comparison, and without any association to Lazarus. The only time Luke mentions the name Lazarus is in connection with a beggar in a parable.

An argument from silence is never an absolute proof. At best, it is circumstantial evidence, but circumstantial evidence carries with it degrees of strength in leading to one conclusion or another. For Matthew, Mark, and Luke not to record the major events found here in John strongly suggests that either those events did not happen or the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were derived from second- or third-hand accounts instead of from eyewitnesses and this information was lost in the retelling of the story. However, given the additional detail of the dialog from the Sanhedrin meeting that John included in the account, despite having no eyewitnesses of it, his Gospel has an additional layer of dubious veracity. So we can conclude with reasonable assurance, but not certainty, that the resurrection of Lazarus is a myth. The mythical nature of Lazarus is further demonstrated by church records indicating that, after his resurrection, he had lived out the rest of his life as both the Bishop of Kition (Cyprus) and the Bishop of Marseille (France).

Friday, September 14, 2012

Mina Agitation

Jesus' Disciples had an argument associated with which of them had earned the highest places of honor in the Kingdom to come. From there, Jesus and His crew went to Jericho as they continued toward Jerusalem. As they left Jericho, Jesus healed a blind man through his faith (Mark 10:46-52). Or was it a healing of two blind men, where it was not their faith, but rather Jesus' touch which healed their eyes (Matthew 20:29-34)? Or was it the healing of a single blind man which happened when Jesus initially approached Jericho (as opposed to when He left Jericho), and just relies on the blind man's faith (Luke 18:35-43)? Whatever the case, we will follow Luke in this study, for the subsequent event which happens in Jericho.

Mina Agitation
Whether you are a believer in the truth of Christianity or someone thinks that it has questionable roots, it does not take long to realize that the message of Salvation and forgiveness is worthless (or perhaps worth-less) unless it is shared with others. Somewhat like a multi-level marketing platform, spreading that word is going to be much more efficient if you can get the common believers to do the work instead of just relying on the leaders. That requires motivation. What better motivator could there be that the words of Jesus?

Our study begins with Luke 19:1-10, where a short, wealthy, chief tax collector named Zacchaeus climbed a tree just to see Jesus when He was in Jericho. Jesus, either through omniscience or standard human-type knowledge, identified Zacchaeus in the tree, and told him to come down because Jesus "must" stay at his house; possibly indicating that this was part of God's Plan.

In Luke 19:7, we find:
All the people saw this and began to mutter, "[Jesus] has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner.'" NIV
This verse is interesting because normally this kind of judgmental statement is found coming from Pharisees or Teachers of the Law, figures already assumed to be righteous (or perhaps self-righteous), but in this case it is coming from the common people. If Luke is accurately capturing the perspective of the culture here, it may mean that a "sinner" was considered to be someone who is in regular involvement with sinful practices as opposed to someone who just makes occasional moral mistakes based on the assumption that the tax collector was cheating people in his business.

As the story continues, we see Zacchaeus' fruitful repentance of his sinful past with a pledge to share half his wealth with the poor and generously compensate those who he has cheated. It is difficult to know the intent behind the giving of half his wealth to the poor, but it may be that this shows that Zacchaeus had accumulated this wealth without being generous to the poor, which is against God's Law, such as in Deuteronomy 15:7-11.

In response, Jesus says that Zacchaeus is saved and calls him a "son of Abraham;" meaning that he now has the kind of respect for God that should be expected of someone of Abraham's lineage, and that he is then subject to the same promise God made for Abraham's lineage. (Of course, God never promised Abraham eternal life, but that is another story...) Jesus goes on to say that this Saving of the lost was exactly what the "Son of Man" had come to do.

But the story does not end there. Being Saved is not just a free ride. It comes with responsibility, and in Luke 19:11-27 Jesus continued with a parable to illustrate that point, among other things:
Because people thought that the Kingdom of God would come immediately when Jesus went to Jerusalem, He said this parable: A noble man went to a distant country to be appointed as king, but people who were to be his subjects hated him, and so they sent a delegation to stop his appointment, but that effort failed. Before the noble man had gone away, he gave ten servants each a sum of money (a mina) and instructed them to put the money to work in his absence. Upon his return as king, he checked on how his servants had done with the money. One servant had returned ten times its original value, and so the king rewarded him by giving him ten cities to rule. Another had returned five times its value, and so was rewarded with five cities. One servant had just hidden the money away instead of investing it, because he was afraid of the king because the king reaps what he did not sow. The king was angry with him for not investing the money, and promptly had his money taken from him and given to the servant who had earned ten times the original money. The king explained that those who have will be given more, while those who do not have will have even what little they possess taken from them. Then, the king commanded that people who had not wanted him to be their king be brought in front of him and killed. (My paraphrase)
The first of several points to note with this parable is that, as seen in an earlier study, Luke is delaying the expectation of the Kingdom of God, both by prefacing the parable to thwart the belief of an immediate Kingdom associated with the Messiah and with the mention that this would-be king was going to a distant country, thereby implying some considerable time passing before his return. Yet Luke still likely believed, or at least promoted the belief, that the Kingdom of God would be established soon, possibly within his lifetime. An indication of this belief is that both the servants and the subjects who had rejected the king were still alive upon his return.

Next, let us take a look at the king, his servants, and the money. Obviously, the king in this parable is meant to represent Jesus. Before the king's journey, he already had servants. These were not "new hires," but people already following him. So they represent all of the followers of Jesus at the time. Jesus was not ever portrayed as giving out money to His followers. Knowledge, yes, but not money. So the money in this parable must represent something other than money. Yet the return on these investments was just more money, implying an in-kind production. Each servant started with the same money. The servants were rewarded in proportion to their investment success. The one who did not invest the money had it taken from him. It is a little vague, but it does not appear that this lazy servant was slain for his lack of effort. Piecing this information together, it seems likely that each original sum of money represents the "entry level" reward you are entitled to when you are Saved, and so the success of the investors in gaining five or ten more coins likely represents how many more souls have been Saved by them, and their associated additional entitlement in God's Kingdom. Yet if you do not put for effort to try to convert more believers, your "entry level" reward will be taken from you. Whether or not this mean losing your Salvation altogether is not clear.

Speaking of punishment, what about those subjects who hated the would-be king? Who are they? Modern Christian eyes may be tempted to expand this to anyone who rejects Jesus, but the words of the parable suggest otherwise. These unruly subjects sent a delegation to the distant country to prevent the kingship of the noble man. That means that they knew and were in contact with the one who has the ultimate authority. In this case, that would be God, the Father. That cuts the Gentiles out, because only the Jews had a relationship with the one true God, even if it was a bit of a strained relationship at the time per the Christian accounts. So, while other verses have a stronger tone for the purpose, this passage could also be used by those with an antisemitic slant; rebuking the Jews for rejecting their King.

In this one parable, Luke intertwined the timing of the Kingdom, the responsibility of believers to recruit more believers, and the condemnation of unbelieving Jews. That is quite the package! How much of this package was man-made fabrication? That is difficult to answer, but there is some hint that this is a crafted tale as opposed to being the accurate record of a memory. What hint? Well, I will leave it to you to take a look at Matthew 25:14-28 where you will find the Parable of the Talents; a parable with a lot less baggage but a core so similar that suggests both Luke's parable here and Matthew's parable there came from one common origination point, but morphed over time in the verbal retelling of the story.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Greatest Seat Warmers

On Jesus' final approach to Jerusalem, after making it to the region of Judea, Jesus used a man as an example to explain how difficult it was for rich people to enter Heaven, and then elaborated on what the Disciples would receive for giving up everything to follow Him. Matthew's Gospel next had Jesus explain something contrary to Mark's Gospel, that the first people to be rewarded in the afterlife would be the last people to be Saved, and visa versa. Then, synchronizing the Synoptic Gospels again, Jesus and His Disciples headed directly toward Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus told them once again that He was going to be killed in Jerusalem, and then resurrected. Depending on which Gospel you read, the Disciples may or may not have understood what Jesus meant.

The Greatest Seat Warmers
Have you ever known someone who said the right things, but said them in the wrong way? It makes you want to act like an interpreter. You want to step in, say "this is what she said, but she meant this," or otherwise reshape their words such that they will be better understood and received. If you have ever felt that way, then you may better understand what Matthew and Luke had to go through in creating their Gospels.

Matthew 20:20-28 and Mark 10:35-45 recount the tale of when it was asked if James and John, the two Disciples known as the Zebedee brothers, could sit at the left- and right-hand sides of Jesus in the afterlife. You may have noticed that I used the awkward expression "it was asked." Well, there is a reason for that.

The way that Mark tells the original story is that James and John together approached Jesus and asked for the special seating (Mark 10:35-37). When Matthew was copying the story for his Gospel, there was something he did not like about James and John making such a bold demand themselves. Perhaps the idea of the Disciples asking such a bold question directly was too much for Matthew to believe, or perhaps he had just known a different version of the story. Whatever the reason, in Matthew's version it is the mother of James and John who asks the question, and she does so as humbly as possible for such a bold request; kneeling down in front of Jesus before asking (Matthew 20:20-21).

As the story continues, in metaphorical language Jesus asks if the brothers can endure the same kind of afflictions which He soon will endure. They answer that they can, and Jesus, extending the metaphor, confirms that they will indeed have that kind of suffering, but then Jesus tells them that the seats are already assigned.

Take just a moment to review that last paragraph. Did you notice anything strange? Jesus asked the Zebedee brothers a question which was completely irrelevant to the answer to the original question. Jesus could not change who the seats were assigned to at that time, so what was the point of asking the brothers if they could withstand the same type of afflictions as Jesus would? Also, if Jesus had already known that they would face those same troubles, what was the point of asking them if they could handle it? Keep this in mind as the study continues.

Besides the mother asking, other variations Matthew provides include specifying that these seats would be in Jesus' Kingdom as opposed to Mark's "in [Jesus'] glory" (Matthew 20:21, Mark 10:37) and that it was God, the Father, who assigned the seats as opposed to Mark's more ambiguous statement that does not say who they were assigned by (Matthew 20:23, Mark 10:40). These three relatively-minor changes represent a polishing of the story. They paint the Disciples themselves in a slightly better light and clarify the evolving doctrine. (Also, note that some versions of Matthew drop one of the metaphors Jesus used; that of baptism. This was probably just a scribal error or shortcut.)

At the end of the story, Matthew and Mark become nearly verbatim copies of each other: The other ten Disciples get indignant with the Zebedee brothers for the request. Jesus reminds them all that, in His Kingdom, unlike in secular power structures, it will be those who graciously become slaves to all who will become the most highly honored, lust like how He will give His life for many..

That was the end of the story, but it is not the whole story. For the rest of the story, we turn to Luke 22:24-27. There, you will find an extremely abbreviated, and somewhat altered, version of this episode. The request to sit at the left and right hands of Jesus and the Zebedee brothers are gone from specific mention. With them, Jesus' irrelevant questions vanish too.

Luke turns this into a general dispute over which Disciple would be the greatest. Luke's Jesus also reminds the Disciples that His Kingdom will not operate like secular kingdoms. However, just like before, Luke dropped the reference of becoming a slave too all. Apparently, he was not too keen on that concept. Instead, Luke's Jesus says that the Disciples should be like youngest and like those who serve, implying that they should just have a humble perspective as opposed to actually requiring them to do things for other people.

Luke even drops the explicit reference to Jesus mentioning His upcoming death being a service to many, presumably because Luke's perspective was that the Disciples did not understand that Jesus was about to become a sacrifice. The truth was hidden from them.

When we review these details, it becomes clear that, whatever Jesus actually said or did, the authors of Matthew and Luke were willing to make adjustments as they saw fit in order to make their particular Jesus version of Jesus match their own perceptions. It seems that many people still do that today.