Anachronism is reading history out of order. Many examples of popular anachronisms exist. The religious art of Europe is a well-known anachronism. Biblical characters are depicted wearing plate armor at times or Renaissance fashion (or posing nude, in spite of ancient taboos on nudity).
Matthew 11 is a common victim of anachronism as well as supersessionism (Christianity has replaced the Jewish people). But this discourse on John, the law and prophets, and the kingdom is surely saying that Christianity is superior to Judaism, the New Testment to the Old Testament, right?
I offer this reading in the hopes that it will help Christians understand Judaism a little better and see Yeshua from within Judaism, not as a “Christian Messiah” breaking with his childhood religion and people.
Note: The text of Matthew 11:2-19 is included here from the NET (New English Translation), see http://net.bible.org.
11:2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds Christ had done, he sent his disciples to ask a question: Matthew 11:3 “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Matthew 11:4 Jesus answered them, “Go tell John what you hear and see: Matthew 11:5 The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. Matthew 11:6 Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
John’s disappointment or doubt is clear in the passage. Vs. 6 should dispel any interpretation of John’s motive other than doubt and disappointment. Yeshua’s actions and message do not seem to fulfill the prophecies of John (3:10-12). Where is the fire, the axe laid to the roots? Yeshua answers with a different messianic mission than the one John expected: the mission of Isaiah 35 and 61, healing and liberation. Yeshua does not explain to John that the fire will come later (something the reader must infer). Rather, Yeshua trumps John’s authority (another indication of the high view Yeshua had of his identity) in vs. 6.
Matthew 11:7 While they were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? Matthew 11:8 What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes? Look, those who wear fancy clothes are in the homes of kings! Matthew 11:9 What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. Matthew 11:10 This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
Yeshua explains John as a hard man with a hard message (not a bendable reed). John is a prophet whose message is true. Yeshua does not deny this. Yet he also does not explain why the fire and axe are not happening at the present time. Yeshua is an enigmatic teacher, expecting his disciples to puzzle it out.
Matthew 11:11 “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. Matthew 11:12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it. Matthew 11:13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John appeared. Matthew 11:14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, who is to come. Matthew 11:15 The one who has ears had better listen!
Is the “least in the kingdom” about the present or future? An anachronistic and supersessionist reading is: “Any Christian is greater than John the Baptist because he did not know the gospel or have the Spirit.” John represents the last prophet of the old era, before the kingdom was revealed. The blessings of the kingdom, partially realized in Yeshua’s healing and teaching, bring the disciples into a greater age. This is not Judaism vs. Christianity (a ludicrous anachronism foisted on this text from time immemorial), but statement about the blessing of living in the age of the kingdom’s unveiling. Likewise, Hebrews 8:6 speaks of the better promises of the New Covenant age. None of this should be read in a replacement (either-or) paradigm, but a consummation (both-and) paradigm. In other words, what the law and prophets foretold is coming to pass. John is less blessed than those who now are seeing the kingdom revealed, even though he is the greatest of the prophets who looked forward to it.
What about the violent men saying? What is going on here? Keep in mind, Yeshua often said things denouncing the revolutionary spirit of his times. Yeshua denounces those who take a violent approach to bringing the kingdom (war with Rome) or who would assume that John’s fire is about a Jewish war. Many in Yeshua’s generation reasoned: (1) God has not acted in a long time, (2) God must be waiting on us to take the first step, (3) therefore, we must defeat our enemies and make the kingdom so that God will help us (“let’s force God’s hand with violence”).
Matthew 11:16 “To what should I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces who call out to one another, Matthew 11:17 ‘We played the flute for you, yet you did not dance; we wailed in mourning, yet you did not weep.’ Matthew 11:18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ Matthew 11:19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
He rebukes his generation for failing to respond to God’s revelation and instead judging prophets (judging both John and Yeshua as if the word of God can be put on trial).