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Sheep Among Wolves

The account of Jesus sending out the Twelve in the first half of Matthew 10 is so similar to the one about his sending out the Seventy that I almost combined them into a single play. Then I came to this half of the chapter, and realized that they were very different stories.

They both begin the same way: with the same (almost verbatim) instructions about how to go from city to city, carrying no possessions and finding worthy homes to stay in and healing and helping the people of the city, and how to deal with cities that reject the message. At that point, however, the accounts diverge. The Seventy actually go out, and when they return, report giddy successes that rival the works of Jesus himself in the rest of the Gospels. The Twelve, however, don’t seem to ever go out on their own (and certainly never return from their mission with any kind of report) and what’s more, receive additional instruction that sets a completely different tone from the victorious reports of the Seventy.

The disciples will be arrested and beaten. They’ll be betrayed by friends and family. They’ll be hated. It’s such a different picture from what the Seventy experienced, and it’s what I tried most to bring out in the play. What did the disciples think about this sudden alteration of the picture?

I won’t be dealing dramatically with the question of why the account starts off so much like the story of the Seventy only the Twelve are never sent anywhere (looking ahead, I see no chance to write a play where the Twelve puzzle over this) but I’d like to discuss it a bit here because it goes once again to the heart of the Wineskin Project’s mission. This oddity probably won’t be a problem to most of my readers because they’ll be coming into the reading with a theological framework that already explains away all the puzzles. Those who believe the books of the Bible were authored fairly directly by God will have no trouble believing that the Twelve *were* sent out, and it just wasn’t recorded, or that Jesus here was speaking to them about what would happen after he died, or even speaking past them to future believers. Meanwhile, those who believe that any divine influence on the writing of the Bible was far more indirect, and that it was subject to the same natural developmental processes as other ancient writings of the world, might hypothesize that the writers of those two passages were simply working from similar source material, but decided to give a different cast to their respective accounts in furtherance of their unique agendas. (And that these editors and compilers didn’t always care that much about how coherent the resulting account was, in simple narrative terms.)

This divide also applies to the puzzle of Jesus’ statement about how the Son of Man would “come” before they had visited all the cities of Israel. The literalist might suggest that Jesus is talking past his disciples again and addressing future believers about his Second Coming. Of course, believers have certainly brought the message of Jesus to all the cities of Israel already, but it’s easy enough to suggest that “all the cities of Israel” really means “all the cities of the world,” or to get picky about new towns have been or might be founded in the future.

Interestingly, modernists might also interpret this statement as referring to the Second Coming, only for them, the author of the statement is not Jesus, but the later editor who put together this account. For this editor, there was no problem about “all the cities of Israel” since believers for a period after the death and resurrection of Jesus mostly believed that he was returning very soon. (This is why they also have him saying in another gospel passage, “This generation will not pass away before all these things [the events of the end times] come to pass.”)

Which side do I fall on? Neither! The Wineskin Project’s mission is to approach these texts as naked accounts free of any interpretive frameworks or historical context, to make the best sense of them as I can from the words of the stories alone. And what do I think Jesus meant, based solely on that data? I have no idea.

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