Monday, January 5, 2009

Who are the Nations in Matthew 25:32?

Thanks to Sarah, David and Jane, and Fiona, for contributing to the discussion here on how we should read Mathew 25. This is something of a response to Sarah's argument, not because I think Sarah must agree with me, or that I even have a hard and fast opinion on the subject, but because there are some problems with her argument which need fixing if it is to be convincing.

Firstly, I like Sarah's summary of the message of the first two parables in Matt 25, of the Ten Virgins: "the kingdom of Heaven is an imminent event that is coming but will take a bit longer than expected!" and of the parable of the Talents: "we need to do the best with what we have and keep on working untill the master returns." I don't know that anyone would disagree with that. But it is fair to say that the climactic and sudden event that the parables describe is usually thought of by Christians as describing the end of history when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead and to renew the creation. So why does Sarah instead read them as relating to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the end of the Jewish system of temple sacrifice? The substantial part of Sarah's argument relies on identifying the "nations" (ethnos) in Mathew 25:32 as the Jewish diaspora. This is distinctly unlikely for the following reasons:
  1. Just because a word is used one way by one author in Acts that does not control its meaning when used by a different author in Matthew.
  2. But, in this instance Acts 2:5 is referring to Jews who have come FROM every nation. The word "nation" does not describe the Jews but merely where they have been living. So for there to be consistency (although there does not have to be) between the passages, ethnos would not refer to the Jews at all but the nations in which the diaspora was found.
  3. Most importantly the words here rendered "nations" (ethnos) is a word used 14 times in Matthews gospel and every time it is used it refers to foreign pagan nations not the Jewish people living among those nations.* This reason alone is enough to render Sarah's argument as it stands untenable. For the writer of Matthew's gospel to have used the word consistently, as he has given every indication of doing, it simply must refer to foreign nations.
  4. When the word ethnos appears in the plural and with the definite article as it does in this passage my Greek NT dictionary tells me it can be translated: "non-Jews, gentiles, pagans, heathen, unbelievers." I cannot find any reason to understand this word to refer to a diaspora.
Now there are other issues but that is the big one. I think if the argument is to have any merit it needs to concentrate more on the immediate context. Most people (in my experience) agree that Matt 24 refers (at least in part) to the AD 70 fall of Jerusalem. As Matt 25 is part of the same monologue as 24 this needs some explaining.

Let me know what you think :)

* In the NIV Matt 4:15, 10:5, 10:18, 20:19, 20:25, rendered "Gentiles"; Matt 6:32, rendered "pagans"; Matt 12:18, 12:21, 24:7, 24:9, 24:14, 25:32, 28:19 rendered "nation/s" (not the Jewish nation); Matt 21:43 rendered "a people" (not the Jews);

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