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Jesus of Nazareth, the Bridegroom of «My Church», the Bride. An Exegetical Study of Matt 9,15 and Its Nuptial Imagery

(Mod.: Prof. Klemens STOCK)

Matt 9,15 records that Jesus, in reply to the question of the Baptist’s disciples about the non-fasting of his disciples, says: “Can the children of the bridechamber mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom will depart, and then they will fast”.
   While Patristic, Medieval, and Renaissance exegetes unanimously understand Jesus to be referring to himself by the image of the bridegroom, modern exegesis has been characterized by a denial of such reference, at least on the Jesus level, if not on the Gospel level. This denial is often justified by the observation that such a reference unwarrantedly turns Jesus’ mini-parable into an allegory. This dissertation takes such an exegetical contradiction and its form-critical problematic as the starting point of a textual, contextual, and inter-textual inquiry into the meaning of Matt 9,15, approached in a fundamentally synchronic way.
   First of all, a close look is taken at the nature of parable and allegory. The Jülicher-Dodd-Jeremias line of interpretation is supplemented with the newer and more adequate Bailey-Klauck-Fusco line. The conclusion is thus reached that identifying the bridegroom as Jesus does not turn Jesus’ words in Matt 9,15 into an allegory. Such an identification remains within the limits of purely parabolic interpretation.
   Next, a philological study of Matt 9,15 results in the translation given above and in the affirmation of the strictly nuptial nature of the content of Matt 9,15, both in its first part (9,15a, festive nuptials) and in its second part (9,15b, mournful nuptials).
   A study of OT nuptial texts leads to a third conclusion. In the nuptial symbolism of OT prophets, the bridegroom-bride imagery is consistently applied to YHWH and Israel/Zion/Jerusalem, never to the Messiah.
    These three conclusions highlight the central problem discussed in this dissertation. Is Jesus’ application of the bridegroom image to himself in Matt 9,15 to be understood in a merely literary sense? Or in a Jewish messianic sense? Or in a transcendent sense, i.e. in a sense related to that by which in the OT YHWH speaks of himself as he who will wed again Zion/Jerusalem? The form of language used in Matt 9,15 leads to the conclusion that Jesus’ application to himself of the bridegroom image is to be understood in the third sense, however challenging this may be: Jesus of Nazareth refers to himself a standard OT prophetic image of YHWH.
   Jesus does so to reveal the coming true of the prophetic promises about YHWH’s salvific intervention through new and eternal nuptials with Zion/Jerusalem. This nuptial coming true is also the symbolic import of the non-fasting of Jesus’ disciples. Their non-fasting is limited in scope. It concerns only the traditional, semi-communitarian Zion-Mourning fasts held by zealous groups of Israelites to mourn Zion/Jerusalem’s unredeemed state.
   The future fasting of the children of the bridechamber is also related to Zion-Mourning, insofar as the bridegroom’s departure is motivated by Zion/Jerusalem’s need for redemption. Already in the initial stages of Jesus’ public ministry and in characteristic “Jesus language”, crucial importance is attributed to the bridegroom who “departs” (this is the meaning of απαρθηναι in NT times according to the philological analysis of this verb made in this dissertation).
   This dissertation suggests that in Matt 16,18a Jesus points to the future presence of the bride by naming, in an implicitly nuptial way, the bride as “my Church”. This future reference links up with the continued presence of nuptial symbolism in the rest of the NT. While the pre-Paschal nuptial symbolism of Matt 9,15 and other nuptial parables in Matt is rather somber, the rest of NT nuptial symbolism is illumined by the light of Jesus’ Paschal breakthrough.
   Though the new and eternal nuptials of Jesus with his Church have also a future dimension, they are a present reality already in the pre-Paschal time of Jesus. To their presence here and now witness is borne by Jesus’ first nuptial saying in Matt 9,15 .