Matthew: the Heavenly Gospel

The theory presented here is that Matthew appeals to the more-or-less common knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes in his interpretation of Jesus.... For Matthew, however, the age foreshadowed by the heavens is central. Jesus comes not just to usher in the age but also to become the Lord of Pisces.

By Jay Williams
Walcott D. Bartlett Professor of Religious Studies
Hamilton College
June 2011

Each of the Gospels tells the story of Jesus and proclaims the good news in its own distinctive way. Matthew, Mark, and Luke often use very similar words and hence are called synoptic, but such nomenclature may be misleading, for a careful reading reveals that each has his (or her) own particular emphasis that makes the Gospel unique.

In this essay on Matthew, we will not pay attention to sources or sub-forms or dating. There will be no attempt to tear the Gospel into pieces. Neither will we pay attention to whether the historical Jesus really said what the Gospel claims he said. Rather we will try to look at Matthew as a literary whole and examine very briefly what his emphasis upon heaven may mean. Needless to say, what is presented here is no more than a theory, but it is a theory with some evidence and perhaps with some important implications not only for the scholarly student of the Bible but also for understanding faith today.

In a word, if the unknown author of the Gospel of Matthew (who, for simplicity’s sake, I shall call Matthew) employed sources in his writing, he used them to tell the story of Jesus in his own unique way and that way is not “synoptic” at all. Through subtle and sometimes not so subtle emphases, he sought to make his own special interpretation of Jesus and it is that interpretation we shall explore in the pages that follow.

Among the most obvious differences between Matthew and the other so-called synoptic gospels is his use of the word “heaven.” In fact, he uses ouranos in either singular or plural form at least seventy-seven times, while Mark and Luke together only use the word forty-four (17, 27) times. Since the Gospel of Matthew has twenty-eight chapters, that means that the author averages 3.1 uses of the word per chapter. The primary reason for this is that Matthew usually, though not always, speaks of “the kingdom of heaven” rather than “the kingdom of God.” A common explanation for this difference is that Matthew, like many Jews who regarded the word “God” as especially holy, wished to avoid using theos and therefore used ouranos as a circumlocution. This explanation, though seemingly widely accepted, is hardly believable, however, because Matthew, in fact, uses the word God (theos) fifty times. On more than one occasion he, like the other gospel writers, also speaks of the kingdom of God (12:28; 19:24; 21:31).

Today, virtually everyone who is Christian reads the word “heaven” metaphorically, simply as a word signifying rather vaguely God’s transcendence and pointing to the spiritual and immaterial “place” to which believers go after death. For people of the ancient world, however, ouranos had a much more concrete meaning that would become clearer if the word were translated as “sky.” Indeed, since Matthew uses the word in the plural very frequently, the basileia ton ouranon might well be translated “the reign of the skies.” Thus the Lord’s Prayer might be more accurately rendered “Our Father in the skies . . . .” In other words, the kingdom or reign of which Matthew speaks is connected to a visible reality right over head. It is the firmament, or what in Hebrew is known as ha’shamayim, that in some sense rules. The fact that the Hebrew word is plural helps to explain why Matthew often speaks of the heavens. Another important reason to use the word in the plural is that people at the time believed that there were overhead several heavens, each delineated by the path of one of the seven celestial “planets,” i.e., the Sun, the Moon, Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Mercury, and Saturn. These are what Matthew in 24:29 refers to as the “powers of heaven.” They are the same powers that astrologers study to determine the future.

In any event, the heavens were regarded as multiple and, in a sense, material. Thus Paul could say in Second Corinthians

“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven---whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise---whether in the body or out of the body I do not know--- God knows.” (II Cor. 12:2)

The implication is clear: although it may be that “the man in Christ” ascended to heaven “ut of body,” the heavens can accommodate material bodies because it is a more-or-less material place. Thus Jesus ascended to heaven in the body. He is, according to the ancient believers who wrote the Apostle’s Creed, right up there today, sitting on a throne next to God, just beyond the blue sky. There, above the firmament, God reigns and with eyes many times more powerful than an eagle can look down and see everything that transpires on earth. Sometimes, the heavens open and God speaks directly to humans as he does in Matthew 3:17.

Today, of course, such a belief is virtually impossible to hold because we know that the blue firmament is an optical illusion, that the earth orbits the sun rather than vice versa, and that if Jesus ascended to heaven in his body at the speed of light he would still be zooming along in space, even now far from his goal. Humans have visited the moon and have sent spacecraft to take pictures of other planets. It is not surprising then that today ouranoi is often translated as “heaven” rather than “heavens” or “skies” and that the factual is subtly transformed into the metaphorical. Post-Copernican readers cannot really take the Bible literally.

This does not mean, however, that we should ascribe to Matthew a metaphorical rather than a literal understanding of the universe. Although we can only enter his world through our imagination, we must try to do so to understand him properly. In other words, when he spoke of the kingdom (or perhaps “reign”) of the heavens, he probably had something much more factual in mind than we do. God, according to Matthew, was about to act decisively; a new age was dawning and that new age was directly connected to something clearly evident in the heavens themselves. Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that what is happening in heaven may also happen on earth (Matthew 6:10). In other words, Jesus strongly encourages his disciples to coordinate their wills with that of God and to want what the heavens indicate is about to happen.

For Matthew, God, the heavenly Father, is ultimately in charge and whatever is going to happen will happen according to his will. He is the creator and ruler of the heavens. At the same time, Matthew, like most people of his time, believed that there are powerful forces in heaven that communicate the will of God to humanity. Thus, in chapter 24:29 he speaks of the powers of heaven being shaken at the coming of the new age. This both affirms that radical changes will take place in the heavens and that there are now powers in the sky, not unlike those believed in by the astrologers.

Whatever the heavens say implies a radical change and this is no small matter. Something was happening that made people believe that the world was entering an entirely new age. It is noteworthy that in Matthew not only Jesus but John the Baptist before him announces that the reign of the heavens is at hand (Matthew 3:2) it was, in effect, “public knowledge.” Jesus, however, radicalizes the interpretation of whatever the sign is. He not only predicts but is to be the lord of the new age.

For him, the heavens tell humanity that in the new age there will be no more temple (24:2) and that the understanding of the Torah will be radically transformed. Jesus repeatedly says, “It was said to the men of old . . .but I say unto you” (Cf. 5:21). What Jesus proclaims is that obedience to rules is not enough; there must be an inner transformation of the spirit. Although Jesus tells his followers to obey the law until the new age arrives (5:18), he also undercuts people’s trust in the old religious habits. He and his disciples do not perform the proper ablutions before eating (15:2) and show less than strict adherence to the niceties of the Sabbath law (12:1-14). Moreover, although Jesus sometimes concentrates upon the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he aims to create a whole new people who will have nothing to do with rabbis, Pharisees, scribes, and the like. In the new age, “religion” will be very different. To the religious leaders of his day he offers only “woe” (23:1-39). Their day is presumably about over.

Jesus also knows that the new age will not come easily. There will be wars and rumors of wars and his followers will be subjected to persecution and martyrdom (24:3-14). Sometimes it sounds as if the “close of the age” (a phrase that Matthew uses five times but which Mark and Luke use not at all) is the end of the world. Nevertheless, Matthew also teaches that the new age will come and with it a whole new form of religion and society. He counsels repeatedly that his followers must be ready for radical changes that may come as a thief in the night (Ch. 25).

The question is: what sign from heaven made the Magi, John the Baptist, and then Jesus so sure that a radical change was at hand? Over the years people have proposed that it was a giant nova or Halley’s comet or perhaps a conjunction of planets that was the sign, but none of these phenomena, though perhaps important to an astrologer, seem quite powerful enough to foreshadow a whole new age. For some reason, scholars have, for the most part, overlooked the most important sign, first discovered in the west by Hipparchus in the second century B.C.E. That is, Hipparchus prophesied on the basis of careful mathematical evidence, the coming event that would shake the heavens and the whole “science” of astrology forever.

Since about 2200 B.C.E. all people had been living in the age of Aries. That is to say, the first sign of the zodiac was the sign of the Ram that rose with the dawn at the vernal equinox. From that time onward, particular zodiacal signs were associated with the various equinoxes and solstices. Thus the winter solstice always took place under the sign we call Sagittarius. Moreover, the whole zodiac was thought of as comprising a human body with Aries as the head and Pisces as the two feet. On this basis, both societal and individual horoscopes were developed.

What Hipparchus discovered was to undercut the whole of that astrological vision, for his discovery was that of the precession of the equinoxes. That is to say, he discovered that the zodiac was slipping forward so that instead of Aries rising at the time of the vernal equinox it would eventually be Pisces that did so. Hipparchus did not live to see the change, for such changes take place very slowly, but he was quite correct. By the time of Jesus, Pisces, the sign of the fish, was just beginning to come into its own. With that change, the old age slipped away and any one believing in the powers of the heavens saw a new age emerging.

One might object, of course, that Judaism was opposed to astrology and so would Jesus and his followers have been. That is possible, but it should not be overlooked that the Sepher Yetzirah, a work attributed to Rabbi Akiba (circa 50-135 C.E.), certainly includes the basics of astrology among its esoteric teachings.1 Beit Alpha, a synagogue in northern Israel, admittedly of a much later era, even had a zodiac on its floor. Indeed, since astrology was considered a reputable science in the Roman Empire, it would have been difficult not to know something about it.

Parenthetically, astrology has never quite recovered from this blow delivered by the precession. To this day astrologers act as though we live in the age of Aries and cast horoscopes on that basis. Aries is still thought to be the sign connected with the vernal equinox. Thus there is no longer a connection between what astrology says and what actually goes on in the heavens.

One may suspect, at any rate, that the first star of Pisces is what the Magi (2:1-12) saw rising in the east before they traveled westward looking for the new “Lord of the Age.” It is interesting that many modern translators, who should know better, render Magi as “wise men” when, in fact, Magi were astrologers. They certainly were not kings either. The Magi were people who studied the heavens and would surely have been aware that a radical change was taking place in their zodiacal calendar. When that first star of Pisces appeared at the time of the vernal equinox, that undoubtedly signaled that something monumental was about to happen.

Matthew, in the story of the Magi, probably did not intend to offer historical fact. Rather he wished to introduce astrologers as a clue to the meaning of his Gospel. Their coming indicates that the kingdom of heaven does, in fact, have something to do with the visible heavens. It should be noted, however, that the “edges” of the zodiacal signs are not at all clear to the naked eye nd so the exact date when Pisces replaced Aries was probably quite debatable. That Pisces would replace Aries was certain, but the movements were monumentally slow and the new age hardly a sudden transformation. Moreover, the effect of the transformation of the heavens was not necessarily immediate. Jesus predicted that the new age would begin in what was then the present generation (23:36) but of the exact time only the Father would know (24:36).

Matthew also hints of this phenomenon at the very beginning of the Gospel when he offers the genealogy of Jesus. Unlike Luke, who traces the lineage of Jesus back to Adam, Matthew begins with Abraham. In other words, since Abraham can be dated sometime near the end of the third millennium, the genealogy is that of the Age of Aries. Moreover, like astrological ages, it is divided into three parts, in this case with fourteen generations each. Parenthetically, fourteen is the number of the name of David when you add the letters of his name together in Hebrew, so the whole genealogy can be read as David, David, David. This fact, in itself, points to an esoteric side of the Gospel.

In any event, the first fourteen generations, from Abraham to Jesse, constitute what astrologers would call the cardinal age. During this time the essential traditions, such as the reminiscences of the patriarchs and the revelation of the law are developed. The second set of generations goes from David to Jeconiah or what astrologers would call the fixed period. During this time the details of the people’s community were worked out---Israel became a kingdom and experienced the life and then the death of itself as an independent nation. Finally, the third part of the genealogy runs from the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians and Sheltiel to Joseph. Again, for astrologers this would be called the mutable period in which the tradition is again transformed and begins to crumble.

t is perhaps significant that nothing can be added to this genealogy. If Jesus were tacked on, one would have fifteen generations for the third section and the whole symmetry would be destroyed. So Jesus, by his very birth, heralds a new age. In fact, it is an age in which family genealogy is supplanted by spiritual succession. Jesus’ family, as he understands it, is made up, not of his mother, brothers, and sisters, but of those who do the will of God (12:48-50). Although many in the Gospel call Jesus the Son of David, in the end he denies that the Christ is the Son of David (22:41-46), in the new age, genealogy is no longer important. What matters is the descent of the Spirit and community of faith. Jesus is the Christ, not because of lineal descent but because of the work of the Holy Spirit. The faith cannot be inherited; it must come through the descent of the dove.

It is interesting that we who are members of the Age of Pisces have also identified our three ages. The first is the classical period when the church was formed, basic doctrines were worked out, and Christianity was established. In this period, Jesus becomes, literally, the spiritual lord of the Roman Empire. The second, fixed era, we call the middle ages or the medieval era. During this period, the details of the church canon and theology are worked out. Non-Christian tribes are converted and Europe becomes Christendom. Then comes the modern period when the tradition continues under new conditions and gradually begins to erode. It begins with the Renaissance and then the Protestant Reformation, shattering the unity of the church and featuring the development of a whole new cosmology and social order based on science and secular philosophy. The dawning of the age of Aquarius may not mean quite so much to us, but, now that the modern period appears to be drawing to a close, there seems to be on the horizon a whole new world of life and spirituality. Nothing comes easily and there will doubtless be wars and rumors of wars and many natural disasters, but many also sense that a new age is beginning.

In any event, the theory presented here is that Matthew appeals to the more-or-less common knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes in his interpretation of Jesus. That may also account for his identification of several of the primary disciples as fishermen (4:18ff), something that the Gospel of John says nothing about until, after the resurrection, the disciples go fishing (John 21:1-15)2, and why he introduces fish into stories on several other occasions (7:10, 13:37, 14:17ff, 15:34, 17:27). The last story is particularly interesting for when collectors of the half shekel tax ask Jesus for the money, he sends Peter to the lake to catch a fish. That fish has in its mouth a shekel, enough to pay for both of them. Could this be a sign that the “coin,” the object of spiritual value, will be found in the mouth of Pisces?

This theory also helps to explain why the early church took the sign of the fish as its primary symbol and why Jesus is known as:

Iesous            (Jesus)

Christos            (Christ)

Theou            (of God)

Uious            (Son)

Soter            (Savior)

In other words, the first letters of the words spell out ichthus, the word for fish in Greek and the basis for the Greek name of the sign we called Pisces. In a word, Jesus is the Lord of Pisces.

The other Gospels, however, say nothing about the kingdom of heaven. Mark and Luke, though still certain that a new age is dawning, say little about the heavens. John, in his turn, only mentions the kingdom of God in one passage (John 3:3, 6) and never says anything about the kingdom of heaven. Mark and Luke retain some of the passages about the fish and fishermen though without the references to the heavens, they hardly seem to have the same impact as in Matthew. The words are there, but the emphasis is placed elsewhere. The synoptic vision is missing.

For Matthew, however, the age foreshadowed by the heavens is central. Jesus comes not just to usher in the age but also to become the Lord of Pisces. Like the old age of the Ram, Jesus dies, only to be reborn as the lord of the new age that is dawning. His death and resurrection, in effect, act out the radical change in human life that is taking place. With his sacrifice, the need for temple sacrifice ends. The new age of the Spirit begins. The Gospel concludes in the following way:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name if the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (28:18-20)

Although some translators3 have tried to interpret the last phrase as “to the end of time,” the clear meaning seems to be that Jesus will be with his followers until the end of the age that is about to begin. Just as Noah marked the end of one age and the beginning of a new one and Abraham also began an age that ended with the birth of Jesus, so the age of Jesus is also destined to come to an end too. That does not mean that all hope is lost, but that the divine power behind all of life and history may have something new in mind. So, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius is not so irrelevant to a believer as one might think.

It may very well be that Mark and Luke rejected Matthew’s “heavenly” approach because they wished to avoid any hint of astrology. John too seems to have had little interest in signs in the heavens. Certainly many thinkers from later Christendom would have joined in their rejection of heavenly astrological signs. Modern translators also tend to do everything possible to avoid any astrological interpretation. Still, the heavenly interpretation of Matthew ought not be rejected out of hand. As we approach the end of the age of Pisces and see the Christian message eroded by science and radical changes in society, we need to ask ourselves, what is next? Will the church in any form survive or will it be left like the Temple of Solomon with not one stone upon another? The age of Aries died and much died with it. Now that Pisces is near its end, what will survive its passing?

Belief in the resurrection is not just about personal immortality. Jesus, the lamb of God, was sacrificed. He died to the old age and was resurrected as lord of the new. It may well be that the spiritual organizations and beliefs of our age also face extinction, but that does not mean that a resurrection will not occur. Spiritual life will go on, but probably in a radically new form, in a form that we can now hardly imagine. Scribes and Pharisees could not imagine a new world and so clung to a nation- and temple-centered cultus that died a very violent death. Judaism did survive but in a radically new form. Greco-Roman religion lingered on but ultimately did not survive at all.

What will survive this time? What new age is in the future? As Jesus says, keep your eyes open. Something may happen when you least expect it. Don’t go to sleep.


1 Rabbi Akiba Ben Joseph, The Book of Formation (Sepher Yetzirah) trans. Knut Stenring (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1970), 23-24.

2 It is quite probable that this story was added to the original Gospel by a later hand.

3 For instance, The New English Bible.

Comments (3)

This is very interesting and entertaining, though is it what Walcott D. Bartlett expected?
A few ill-constructed remarks.
The full riches of Matthew's concept of the Kingdom of Heaven are hard to discover - after all it is not only above our heads but among us in some sense, even 'possessed by violent men'.
I see that Herod's interest in 'what time the star appeared' fits with the idea that a star of Pisces may have caused consternation by appearing at a time of prophetic significance, as does the rejoicing of the Magi 'when they saw'. But why should the first sign of a new age for all the world be the birth of a royal child specifically among the Jews? How could a star which was a real astronomical object, a recognised member of the Pisces constellation, behave in such a way as to identify a particular house? A miraculous star-like thing could do that, as we see on many a Christmas card, but a real star?
Though a star is invoked to such powerful, even overwhelming, literary effect I rather think that no astrological sense can be made of the Magi - a conjuction, so often mentioned, isn't a star - and so like to think of them as heirs to Balaam and his starry prophecy, like him visionaries rather than astrologers.

#1 - Martin - 06/08/2011 - 20:38

Thank you,thank you! I had been feeling like I had fallen off my spiritual path and was also becoming confused about being a Christian; even to the painful point of wondering whether Jesus was rejecting me. After reading your insights into the Gospel of Matthew, however, I know the opposite is true. He is bringing me closer! I have often been to the point of tears after leaving Catholicism, and other tradional churches. My beliefs about God's love and my new understanding of much of the Scriptures have made it difficult for me to "fit in" with most other Christians in my community. God had answered my prayer for wisdom to understand His Word, His Way a couple years ago. And now I had begun to regret it--it was a lot simpler to be an ignorant sheep believing in whatever the church elders told me I should believe. Following what God put in my heart was often more difficult and lonely. And there was also that nagging doubt, Am I really on the spiritual path God has chosen for me? I can't relay how much torment I have felt these past months and months. It has given me such peace of mind (thank You Jesus!) to have read your article and know I am indeed on the path God has chosen for me. May God bless you and continue to bless others through you. Love, Diane

#2 - diane - 06/28/2014 - 18:55

I am well into a week-by-week chapter-by-chapter study of the Gospel of Matthew with a group of adults who meet every Wednesday for a potluck dinner and then study of a chapter in Matthew's Gospel. This evening we will be looking at Matthew 19, and in preparation, I decided to take a look at the way some folks have organized for understanding Matthew's Gospel, as I expect to ask the class where we are in the midst of the Gospel. This article offers a truly interesting theory, which calls for further research and reflection on my part. Whether or not compelling, I'm inspired by this gift of a new way to look into the Gospel. Theories are meant for study, exploration, testing, and so forth. To that end I'm looking forward to some interesting conversations with friends and colleagues. With deep appreciation for this thoughtfully written article.

#3 - Ralph Mueller - 05/25/2016 - 21:14

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