Wicked and Adulterous

A question came up in a discussion group yesterday evening. It involved a quote from Matthew 16 in the New International Version translation:

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”

Jesus then left them and went away.”

The quote was used in the context of “the sign of Jonah” and the ideas that might represent.

The question was not, as one might guess, about “Signs of the Times.” Bob Dylan sang “we don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” The question was also not about the Pharisees and Sadducees or why they come off so poorly (after all they were the most religious folks of their day). The question was about this phrase “a wicked and adulterous generation.” The assertion was that this phrase was in Luke. That didn’t sound right to me, so I asked for time to research before sharing my take on it. My guess was that is Matthew’s voice and not aimed at Jesus’ followers (that is, not at the Church) but rather at the employees of Jerusalem Temple, Inc.

I was right on both of counts. I also mentioned that Mohammad refused to give his followers “signs” stating, rather, that there are so many indications of Allah’s existence, wisdom, provision, love, and justice all around us that if our eyes are blind to them no tricks he could perform would open our eyes. That might be the most common theme in the Quran in fact. I remember that more than once he referenced Jesus (Isa) and his phrase “a wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign.”

Matthew and Luke got this story from Mark.

Mark 8 (CEB)
… After Jesus told the crowd to sit down, he took the seven loaves and gave thanks. He then broke the loaves and handed them to his disciples, who passed them out to the crowd. They also had a few little fish, and after Jesus had blessed these, he told the disciples to pass them around.

The crowd of about 4,000 people ate all they wanted, and the leftovers filled seven large baskets.

As soon as Jesus had sent the people away, he got into the boat with the disciples and crossed to the territory near Dalmanutha.

The Pharisees came out and started an argument with Jesus. They wanted to test him by asking for a sign from heaven. Jesus groaned and said, “Why are you always looking for a sign? I can promise you that you will not be given one!” Then he left them. He again got into a boat and crossed over to the other side of the lake.

The context is the miracle of the loaves and fishes and the inquisitors are just the Pharisees. There is no insult. If 4000 families being fed by freely sharing with and trusting each other is not “sign” enough, they won’t get a sign.

Luke 12 (CEB) has it
Then Jesus said to the crowds, “As soon as you see a cloud rising in the west, you say, ‘A shower is coming,’ and that is what happens. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It will be hot,’ and it is. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky. Why don’t you know how to interpret the present time?

Luke’s version is a condemnation of those who are unaware of their times, but leaves the religious political parties out of it.

Matthew in Aramaic

My answer is that, likely, Matthew added “wicked and adulterous” to Mark’s story because Matthew was writing after destruction of Jerusalem, the burning of the Temple, the slaughter or enslavement of more than a million Jews by Rome and the loss of the Israeli homeland (renamed to Palestine). Matthew and his congregation in Syria knew that the Sadducees and Pharisees’ bad leadership and infighting were partly to blame.

The literary, translational, and historical context and the Sign of Jonah can lead to interesting discussions, too.

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