Unlocking the Gospels

Unlocking the Gospels October 19, 2014

Unlocking Matthew

There is no way to “unlock” the Gospel of Matthew. It does not have hidden secrets. It is a text, and it has no underneath, and so no hidden depths. It is all surface. There isn’t some sort of skin that you can peel back and see something more profound underneath. What you see depends on your focus. Because of this, I see myself as a sort of tour guide or park ranger–I can point out to you the path of the river through the mountains or the minutiae of the components of small patch of soil, but anything I point out was already there just waiting to be seen by any one with eyes to see. If you come away with some aha! moments, it won’t be because you had been given a way to see what had been hidden but because you saw what had been before you all the time, but you hadn’t noticed it. We don’t discover hidden mysteries. We’re not gnostics. We just read texts. Sometimes they are amazing, but all the amazing is there for anyone to see. It’s about paying attention, not unlocking anything. Nothing was ever locked in the first place.

– Judy Stack-Nelson

The quote is from what Judy Stack-Nelson shared in a Facebook comment, about something she told students in one of her classes. The same point can obviously be extended beyond the Gospel of Matthew.

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  • Ultimately she seems to be trading one metaphor for another – Matthew is not a safe to unlock but a country to be explored.

    I don’t disagree with the exploration metaphor, but I think the unlocking metaphor is quite appropriate when you are trying to understand Matthew from the perspective a historical context, cultural context, and author agenda – things that are not obvious from the text alone. Understanding Matthew’s agenda, for example, reveals to some extent why he pulls OT passages completely out of context in the service of fulfilling “prophecy”.

    • John MacDonald

      Intertextuality is also a secret to be unlocked, like how Matthew’s story of the nativity of Jesus is a haggadic midrash of the nativity of Moses.

  • Andrew Dowling

    What exactly is she alluding to? On on end, any belief that Matthew hides “secrets” like Revelation (which doesn’t hide secrets either, but many think it does) is wacky, but knowing a lot of the background via historical context, cultural context etc. can definitely “unlock” the text in a way just a straight reading would not.

    Edit: I see below I’m not the only one who read the quote this way.

    • That additional information can make an ancient text clearer is an important qualification to add. I think the point is that most readers breeze across the surface of texts, rarely stopping to draw connections, to notice details, and to discover the riches that aren’t even hidden, and don’t require anything more than close attention to discover.