1:46 PM

Beelzebul (Matthew 10:24-25)- Tom Lewis

“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” (Matthew 10:24-25, NRSV)

1) At the risk of missing the forest for one or two particularly fascinating trees, I was intrigued by the mention of the name “Beelzebul” in verse 25. The passage mentions the one “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” in verse 28, but this is the only other reference to any sort of demonic activity in the passage. According to the footnotes in the New Oxford, the name Beelzebul originally refers to the god Baal and appears in 2 Kings 1 (even though the NRSV translates it here as “Baal-zebub”), but the name also appears as an alternate title for Satan in the Gospels (such as Matthew 11:24). Given Jesus’ proclivity for Hebrew Bible references in the Gospel of Matthew (in this discourse, he also references Sodom and Gomorrah in verse 15), could it be that Jesus is intentionally invoking the image of Baal in these verses, and if so, why?

2) According to the article on Beelzebul in the New Interpreter’s, the name originates from the term Ba’al-zevuv (translated “Baal of the Flies”), which was used a pejorative for other gods in biblical texts. In the New Testament, the name takes on slightly different significance since “be’el” means a prince or ruler in Aramaic, and the name was connected to Satan. Also, in Hebrew, “zevul” means a residence, so in a conflation of Hebrew and Aramaic, the term might become “ruler of the household” and might refer to Satan as a ruler of a household of demons.

Carter divides this discourse into four sections on page 232:
10:1-4- Call and Commission of an Alternative Community
10:5-15- Four Aspects of the Mission
10:16-23- The Hardship of the Mission: Inevitable Persecution
10:24-42- The Courage, Impact, and Reward of Faithful Mission

According to Carter, verses 1-23 all carry the theme of disciples imitating their master, and this verse extends that theme. Rather than being a reference to the specific character of Beelzebul/Baal, the use of the title here is meant to recall the accusations against Jesus (that he receives his powers from Beelzebul) by the Pharisees in 9:34. Carter focuses quite a bit on the idea of the household, and elsewhere, in the parables, “the head of the household” usually represents Jesus (e.g. 13:27, 52; 20:1, 11; 21:33’ 24:43), so it is possible that Jesus is merely using these verses to repeat the accusations that have been leveled against him. (Carter, 239) I hadn’t made the connection to the Pharisees’ earlier accusations and found this to be a pretty reasonable assessment of what’s really going on here. Rats, I wanted an excuse to delve into Canaanite religion and early Christian demonology. Oh well, that’s what explanatory footnotes are for.

Witherington omits an explanation of the term Beelzebul and focuses instead on the household, noting that servant and master are interchangeable with disciple and teacher in these verses. Witherington also suggests that Jesus’ use of household language is similar to the language used by Jewish rabbis to describe students who came to study with them. (How does the possible meaning of Beelzebul as “ruler of the household” affect this interpretation?) The use of the name Beelzebul here is mostly just to indicate that Jesus’ students will be persecuted along with him. (Witherington, 224) Of course, if I were really determined to get my fire and brimstone kick, Witherington does provide a more lengthy explanation of Satan and Gehenna from verse 28, but I think I’ll stick to the Beelzebul stuff for now. (Witherington 224-225)

3) Although the term fascinates me, it almost seems that Jesus’ mention of the name Beelzebul is more a matter of convenience or a reference to an earlier accusation by the Pharisees than it is a direct reference to the figure of Beelzebul. As much as I want to make this an allusion to Baal or some strange invocation of the Old Testament, that element might be absent from this passage. The later mentions of Hell/Gehenna in verse 28 might allow comparison to demons or Satan in this verse, but I think I agree with Carter and Witherington that Jesus is largely just answering an accusation and preparing his disciples to face the same charges when they are sent out. Still, I think there is a strange interplay here between the name Beelzebul and the concept of a head of the household, and this merits further exploration.

Comment (1)

I think you've let up on Carter and Witherington too soon! If Beelzebul is introduced here to echo the earlier charge, why? And what was that charge in the first place? What exactly are Jesus and his apostles being accused of? Similarly, there are lots of ways to focus on the household (Witherington's view). Why focus on the household and the master/servant or teacher/disciple relationship with this strange figure? Beelzebul is rhetorically significant, I think, so you should investigate what it means here.

In general, watch out for commentators' "explanations" that amount to "This is simply a reintroduction of X or a transition from A to B." These really don't help much. As readers we need to know why X appears just here or how exactly we transition from A to B such that A and B are clarified.

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