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Teeth Will Be Provided

I have had a long thread of fairly heavy hitting posts for over a week now, dealing with whether Matthew, and his audience, were Jewish.   I still have a few things to say about related issues (such as whether, at the end of the day, Matthew and the apostle Paul would have been able to see eye-to-eye, and whether rather than being Jewish Matthew should be considered *anti*-Jewish).  But I think it’s time for a break from the hard-hitting discussions for something a bit different and humorous.  And so I have an anecdote to tell about a passage that I quoted in one of my earlier posts from Matthew, where Jesus says:

“Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.  I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (8:8-10).

One of my teachers at Princeton Theological Seminary in the later 1970s and early 1980s was the great New Testament scholar, Bruce Metzger.   One of Metzger’s teachers at Princeton University (where he received two degrees in classics), in the late 1930s and early 1940s, was the classics scholar Coleman Norton.   Norton, a Greek scholar, was in the Second World War, and afterwards wrote an article that was published in a prominent biblical journal, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly.

In this article Norton indicated that during the war he was stationed in North Africa, and at one point, during a lull in the action, he was visiting a Muslim mosque in a nearby town.   The leaders of the mosque were pleased to have an American scholar of antiquity visit, and they informed him they had a very old book in their possession, written in Arabic.   Coleman indicated in the article he wrote after the war that while he was leafing through the manuscript he found a page that had been stuffed in the middle, a page written not in Arabic but in Greek!

This Greek fragment was obviously from an unknown commentary on the Gospel of Matthew by some anonymous church father of the early centuries.  The fragmentary commentary was discussing just this passage from Matthew 8 that I quoted above, and indicated that there was an ancient tradition that the conversation between Jesus and his disciples actually continued beyond where it stops in the familiar canonical version.

In this previously unknown version, after Jesus says: “the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” the disciples responded to his words with some consternation, “But Master, what of those who have no teeth?”   And Jesus replied to them:  “Teeth will be provided.”

It’s a great story.  Norton, in his learned article, described the manuscript fragment, his discovery of it, its character, and its amusing textual variant to the well-known saying of Jesus; obviously, since it was in an academic journal he treated the account with the utmost seriousness as a bona fide discovery of real important.

But as it turns out, it was all a hoax.   Norton made the whole thing up.  There never was a manuscript fragment, never was a record of a further conversation of Jesus and the disciples.  My teacher, Metzger, was the one who showed this beyond any reasonable doubt.  As it turns out, *before* the war, in one of his graduate seminars, Norton had told this very same joke about the passage – and Metzger remembered it.    This was a case then (not the first, not the last) of a modern forgery, possibly promoted by the perpetrator because it was interesting and humorous, and possibly to see if he could get away with it.  He almost did.

Bruce Metzger is the author of several books including The Early Versions of the New Testament and The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, And Restoration.

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    FrancisDunn  July 6, 2013

    LOL…..I love it

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    ben.holman  July 6, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman,

    All this talk of Matthew had me thinking..

    In Matt.5.17, in the NIV reads something like.. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

    I’m curious how you think v.18 plays into this (from a scholarly POV, and from a “Matthew’s story POV”). Is it just some kind of expression that Jesus is using to say, “Look, the law’s not going anywhere.” because he assumes heaven and earth will continue on forever? Or, does he, (as the apocalyptic view of Jesus may imply) think that the present world will end, and heaven will disappear to be replaced by something better, and at that time, SO WILL the Torah?! In other words, when Jesus says, “until everything is accomplished”, does he actually think something’s going to be accomplished that will void the law? If he IS indeed looking towards such an apocalyptic upheaval, it seems strange to make such a bold statement, like “not until heaven and earth pass away…” if you thought such an event would take place “… sometime in the next 12 months” lol.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 7, 2013

      Great question. I never looked at it that way. I’ve always just assumed Jesus was saying that the Law will be in effect while life on this earth in this present age lasts. Whether it will be *needed* in the future Kingdom is another question. I’m not sure what his view about that would have been.

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    dfogarty1  July 7, 2013

    Do you think it possible that there were versions of Mathew that were stripped of passages that clearly showed him to be fully Jewish? That perhaps the proto-orthodox Christians, steeped in Pauline theology, neutered Mathew to water down his plainly Jewish thought? Might that be the reason Mathew seems so incoherent when it comes to Jewish thought? I know there is no direct evidence of that kind of editing, but is there circumstantial evidence?

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    Art  July 7, 2013

    FYI, Mark Goodacre also has an entertaining podcast on this very topic at http://podacre.blogspot.com/2010/08/nt-pod-40-teeth-will-be-provided-joke.html

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    RonaldTaska  July 7, 2013

    Quite a tale.

  6. Robertus
    Robertus  July 7, 2013

    Or maybe Metzger made up the story that he had heard the anecdote from Norton before the war because he knew it was an obvious and humorous forgery. That would be doubly funny!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 7, 2013

      Yeah, it would’ve been funny — but there’s no way Metzger would have done that (if you knew Metzger).

  7. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  July 7, 2013

    On one of Mark Goodacre’s NT-Podcasts, he has a segment devoted to this. The audio clip is on a past person (minister/comedian?) talking about the teeth being provided. Pretty darn funny! Check it out members.

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    Wilusa  July 7, 2013

    Delightful! But…did Norton ever get into trouble for having perpetrated the hoax? Or was it not exposed until after his death, or at least his retirement?

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    bobnaumann  July 7, 2013

    Publishing a made-up paper in a journal would seem to be a rather serious breech of academic ethics, even though it was meant as a joke.  However, physicists also have shown their sense of humor.  Ralph Alpher, a student of George Gamow, prepared his dissertation on cosmic nuclear synthesis for submission to the Physical Review in 1948.  Gamow decided it would be fun to add Hans Bethe to the authorship (without Bethe’s permission) so the paper became famously known as the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper.  

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    Forrest  July 7, 2013

    My NT seminary professor told that same joke in the 70’s. I have used it several times.

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    billgraham1961  July 8, 2013

    I roared with laughter. It reverberated throughout my house. Thank you.

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