In reading this section of Matthew’s Gospel, I was struck once again by the originality, even cleverness, of so many of the sayings of Jesus. It is often asked, “How do we know that Jesus spoke the words attributed to him in the Gospels?” Well, I do not know how one can prove, categorically, that Jesus spoke all the words attributed to him in the Gospels. After all, there were no iPhones, video cameras, or even tape recorders to catch whatever he said verbatim. However, what would be the result if one simply tried to create a character out of whole cloth that says all the types of things Jesus says in the Gospels. I doubt even the best writers of fiction alive today could do it. Why do I say that? Because some of the things Jesus says are so shrewd, and spoken off the cuff, like: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” As Joseph Sobran wrote many years ago, if the Gospel writers made this stuff up, then maybe we should be worshipping the forgers.
Then there is the place where Jesus sums up the essence of over six hundred laws in the Hebrew Scriptures with the one statement: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…. And… ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” If that is not brilliance, what is? I would much rather follow a person who says that obeying God is all about loving him and your neighbor than I would the person who says, “Here is a rule book to follow.”
And then there are the hints at Jesus’ deity that pop out in the most unexpected places. As he looks out over Jerusalem Jesus says, “Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify… How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Do you see what Jesus is doing? He is claiming, implicitly, to be the God who has sent prophets to his people, the Jews, down through the ages. He is claiming to be the God who longs to gather his people under his wing. The Gospel writers don’t make a point of this; it is simply there in the text.
Sure there are probably some words that the Gospel writers placed on Jesus lips after the fact. As Perrin and Duling point out, the Gospel of Matthew “presupposes the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 by its comment that the angry king destroyed the murderers of the king’s son and burned their city” (Matthew 22:7). But the Gospel writers did not make up the character of Jesus. As C. S. Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy…
I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion—those narrow, unattractive Jews, too blind to the mythical wealth of the Pagan world around them—was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this. Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it. And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates or Boswell’s Johnson (ten times more so than Eckermann’s Goethe or Lockhart’s Scott), yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god. But if a god—we are no longer polytheists—then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all.