Land, Sea, Land


My friend Burke Shade recently outlined the structure of Matthew 15:32-29:

Not willing to send the crowds (32)
How to feed so great a crowd?
How many loaves?
7, fish
Sit down on the ground - life from Christ, not us
7, fish
Took the loaves and gave thanks
The crowds are fed
Willing to send the crowds (39)

My first thought concerning the symmetry of Bread – Fish – Christ – Fish – Bread was that it reminded me of Peter Leithart’s observation concerning the “architecture” of the structure of the New Testament. Since the loaves represent the abundance of the Land and the fish the abundance of the Sea, the sequence moves from the Land to the Sea and back again. Leithart writes:

The gospel comes to the Jews first. When they resist, Paul turns to the Gentiles. But he hopes to provoke the Jews to jealousy by his ministry among the Gentiles, so that in the end Jews would be saved along with Gentiles. The gospel moves from Jew to Gentile and back to Jew.

The NT canon, arguably, does something similar. The gospels describe Jesus’ work in Israel, with the occasional contact with Gentiles. Acts begins in Jerusalem, but ends with Paul turning from the Roman Jews to Gentiles. Turn the page, and Paul is writing to Christians in Rome, a neat epistolary continuation of Acts. His letters are mainly addressed to Christians in Gentile areas, and to what are partly (if not predominantly) Gentile churches. If Hebrews is Pauline, it marks a shift in focus, a canonical replication of Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11. (Hebrews makes a neat numerological conclusion to a Pauline corpus – 14 letters.)

The Catholic epistles continue the trend of Hebrews, epistles to Jewish believers. James addresses the “twelve tribes dispersed abroad” (1:1). This does not, I’ve argued elsewhere, refer to the diaspora of Jews in general, but specifically to the diaspora of Christian Jews following the outbreak of persecution (see Acts 8:1ff, with its diaspora language). Regardless, James is writing to Jews. Peter appears to do the same, addressing the “scattered” (“diaspora”) believers who have been scattered from Jerusalem (1 Peter 1:1). If 2 Peter is addressed to the same audience as 1 Peter, which seems clear, then 2 Peter is also addressed to these Jewish Christian aliens (assuming, of course, I’m right about the interpretation of “dispersed”).

I’ve been working with 1-3 John recently on the assumption that he is addressing late Judaizing secessionists. If that is right, it fits the canonical paradigm I’m suggesting. (See more on this in my posts on Cerinthus and Ignatius.)

I’m not sure about Jude.

Revelation is the capstone, a final letter from Jesus to His people in Jerusalem. There is a numerological thing going here too. Seven “Catholic” (or perhaps “General Hebraic”) epistles, then the seven letters to the churches of Asia minor, and the “eighth” letter in Revelation, the really big long letter, is sent to the Harlot Jerusalem as a warning of her impending doom. Along the way, thousands of Jews turn to Jesus, and the final vision shows a new creation emerging from the destruction of the great city.

Thus I suggest this narrative and redemptive-historical logic for the organization of the NT canon: Gospel/Jew, to Pauline/Gentile (14?), to General/Jew (7), capped by the letter of Jesus in Revelation.1Peter J. Leithart, Jew Gentile Jew. Regarding gnostic Judaism, see Leithart’s The Epistles of John Through New Eyes: From Behind the Veil.

At the centre of the structure, Jesus asks the disciples to command the people to sit on the “land.” Liturgically, they are enthroned as priest-kings, holy knights of an order which will usurp Herodian rule just as Jacob replaced Esau. The inclusion of fishermen and fish in this new worship is a sign of a fundamental shift in focus from “who can come in” (sin covered: blood – Bronze Altar) to “who can go out” (prophetic office: smoke – Incense Altar). By the fire of the Spirit, Jews are no longer Esaus (outside the tent) who smell of the field, but Jacobs (inside the tent) whose savour pleases the true Father, and whose witness will bring a blessing to all nations.

Note that although the loaves are mentioned on their own, the fish are never listed without the corresponding bread. Until the destruction of the Temple brought an end to Judaism, this “bread of the face” — fulfilled first in the sufferings of Christ and then in the suffering of His disciples — was the testimony of Israel to the nations. There could be believing Jews without believing Gentiles, but there could not be believing Gentiles without believing Jews. This testimony throughout the oikoumene was the purpose of the diaspora: Israel was scattered as seed, and the apostles were sent into the harvest. The Word did not return void. The workers returned with their sheaves, and their success with the Gentiles formed part of a legal testimony against apostate Jerusalem.

When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (Matthew 10:23)

And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14)

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1. Peter J. Leithart, Jew Gentile Jew. Regarding gnostic Judaism, see Leithart’s The Epistles of John Through New Eyes: From Behind the Veil.

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