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Greek tropes of Matthew 8:23-34


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All four canonical gospels give the account of the calming of the storm. Mark's we think was written first and is presumably known by the writers of the other three, including Matthew. And yet Matthew's here in the short passage seems to acknowledge Greek literary themes that show up broadly elsewhere. 


The possibility of the gospel participating in a wider world of the tropes of Greek narratives is something that would require a professor's research or a graduate student's investigation. In the short space of this forum on five-days-a-week of reading through the four canonical gospels in Greek in 2018, here are just two quick observations:


1. There's this rhetorical question inserted in Matthew's story telling:


Τί ἡμῖν καὶ σοί, υἱὲ τοῦ θεοῦ;


All three of the other gospels use this construct much earlier:


τί ἡμῖν καὶ σοί, Ἰησοῦ Ναζαρηνέ; (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:24)

Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, γύναι; (John 2:4)

The construct of this phrase is important because it is so marked. In other words, it's uncommon and unusual and draws the readers' and listeners' attention to it for that very reason. 

In her book Son of Mary, Margaret Wesley has noted the following of it:

"Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, γύναι; is a rare phrase in the LXX (appearing only seven times) and the New Testament (appearing five times outside John but always on the lips of a demon possessed man). It is even more rare in literature outside the Bible, and so presumably (but not certainly) also rare in spoken communication. The author would, therefore, not have been expecting too much of his readers if he hoped the Jews among them would connect the phrase with the passages they had heard in the Synagogue or read in their Scriptures and would draw that connection to discern what was meant by the phrase in this instance [in John's odd Greek gospel]."

Wesley does find this phrase much used in Discourses by Epictetus. She gives an appendix of each use in the literature with her own conjecture as to what it might indicate.

There's one use of the phrase by Epictetus that brings us back to Matthew's gospel, to our passage assigned today. When we compare the two we discover this Greek trope of human reaction to a storm at sea. I don't want to make too much of it (and Wesley doesn't say anything at all about) but find the trope a possible point of further research in Greek literature in which the Greek gospels, and particularly Matthew's gospel, are read.

2. What's up with the human reactions to storms, and what is Matthew saying about his Jesus in light of this trope?

Is Matthew doing something that Epictetus does? We look at Discourses chapter 19. Here's the link to the English translation by Elizabeth Carter:


Notice this rhetorical instruction first, to us, the readers/the listeners/the students of Epictetus:

"And here, indeed, it is of no great consequence if you retain the story without forming any principle of your own."

And so we're brought to a story that sounds a little like Matthew 8:23-34. Halfway through, the author busts in on our reading of it and addresses us reading it, and then he continues. That bit goes like this (in the original Greek, followed by Carter's rendering):

βεβασάνικας οὖν τι αὐτῶν καὶ δόγμα 15σεαυτοῦ πεποίησαι; δείκνυε πῶς εἴωθας ἐν πλοίῳ χειμάζεσθαι. μέμνησαι ταύτης τῆς διαιρέσεως, ὅταν ψοφήσῃ τὸ ἱστίον καὶ ἀνακραυγάσαντί σοι κακόσχολός πως παραστὰς εἴπῃ “λέγε μοι τοὺς θεούς σοι οἷα πρῴην ἔλεγες· μή τι κακία ἐστὶ τὸ ναυαγῆσαι, 16μή τι κακίας μετέχον;” οὐκ ἄρας ξύλον ἐνσείσεις αὐτῷ; “τί ἡμῖν καὶ σοί, ἄνθρωπε; ἀπολλύμεθα καὶ σὺ 17ἐλθὼν παίζεις.”

Have you, then, examined any of these things, and formed a principle of your own? But show me how you are used to exercise yourself on a shipboard. Remember this division, when the mast rattles, and some idle fellow stands by you while you are screaming, and says, "For heaven's sake, talk as you did a little while ago. it vice to suffer shipwreck? Or doth it partake of vice"" Would you not take up a log, and throw it at his head? "What have we to do with you, sir? We are perishing, and you come and jest."

In our passage in Matthew, of course, it is the disciples of Jesus who find him to be the idle fellow, asleep, while they are screaming and perhaps wishing to take up a log and to throw it at his head on that pillow in that stern. These are human beings, Matthew reminds us, calling them οἱ ἄνθρωποι.

Then we're brought by the Greek writing Matthew to other screaming human beings, which he identifies for us as δύο δαιμονιζόμενοι.

They seem equally annoyed by the calm of Matthew's Jesus. And they also scream and rail (as Epictetus would have us imagine ourselves so doing when finding ourselves in the story): Τί ἡμῖν καὶ σοί, υἱὲ τοῦ θεοῦ;


What I'm getting at is there is marked language, stuff that makes us readers reflect beyond the story to ourselves and our own human stories. And I'm suggesting that Matthew is participating in and is inviting us his readers to participate in the kinds of deep learning, that critical thinking, that engage us humans in the larger and tougher questions in the storms of our lives.



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Thank you for sharing this connection!


I wondered, too, whether Matt. 8:24 was marked:


αὐτὸς δὲ ἐκάθευδεν.

But he was asleep.


The antecedent (Jesus) really isn't that far away--just back in verse 22. This may well be over-reading (though not on purpose), but it's almost as if Matthew wants you to hear the disciples say, "Look at him! This one is just sleeping!" A tone of annoyance, frustration, maybe even disdain.


However, they do address him as "Lord" in verse 25, which seems to imply some kind of deference.


And again in verse 27, there is:

ποταπός ἐστιν οὗτος

What sort of human is this?


Or as we say in this part of New England, "THIS guy!" Clearly they are beside themselves. 

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Yes, there's definitely marked language here that gets us readers involved with the surprise.


As a reader of the beatitudes, I get that same feeling with how the Greek syntax presents things so "personal" and so very "contrary to expectation":

ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν
ὅτι αὐτοὶ παρακληθήσονται
ὅτι αὐτοὶ κληρονομήσουσι τὴν γῆν

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
for they shall be comforted
for they shall inherit the earth

αὐτὸς δὲ ἐκάθευδεν.

But he was asleep.

And, exactly. The head noun in this linking-verb clause is a considerably rarely used one anywhere!

ποταπός ἐστιν οὗτος

What sort of human is this?

We might render this in English as follows:

ποταπός ἐστιν οὗτος

Who the heck is this?


I love how you key in on their address to him as Master, as Lord (which is a repeated address of others to him through the immediately earlier parts of the chapter, by those in need of his help).


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Back to the sea, there's something I read this morning that took me back to this Matthew telling of the stormy sea calmed;
it's a famous Greek fable, a "logos" if you will, a "parable," that goes like this (first in English translation) -->

A farmer, seeing a ship fully manned with sailors
and its bow already dipped beneath the arching wave, exclaimed:
“O sea, I would that never anyone had sailed on thee. Thou art a pitiless element, an enemy to man.”

Hearing this, the sea assumed a woman’s
voice and said: “Speak not ill of me.
I’m not the one that causes men these woes.
It is the 
winds, to which I am exposed; they make me turbulent.
If, when these are absent, you shall look on me and sail,
you will declare I’m gentler even than the land on which you live.”

[bad uses turn many things that are good by nature
into something worse, so that they seem to be bad.]


Ἰδὼν γεωργὸς νῆα ναυτίλων πλήρηβάπτουσαν
ἤδη κῦμα κυρτὸν ἐκ πρῴρης,

“ὦ πέλαγος” εἶπεν “εἴθε μήποτ᾿ ἐπλεύσθης,ἀνηλεὲς στοιχεῖον ἐχθρὸν ἀνθρώποις.”

ἤκουσε δ᾿ ἡ θάλασσα, καὶ γυναικείην λαβοῦσα
φωνὴν εἶπε “μή με βλασφήμει·
ἐγὼ γὰρ ὑμῖν οὐδὲν αἰτίη τούτων,
ἄνεμοι δὲ χειμάζοντες, ὧν μέση κεῖμαι.

τούτων δὲ χωρὶς ἢν ἴδῃς με καὶ πλεύσῃς,

10ἐρεῖς με τῆς σῆς ἠπιωτέρην γαίης.”

[Ὅτι πολλὰ φύσει χρηστὰ πράγμαθ᾿ αἱ κακαὶ χρήσεις

τρέπουσιν εἰς τὸ χεῖρον, ὡς δοκεῖν φαῦλα.]

Edited by jkgayle
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