On the Right & Left of Jesus (Mt20:21-23)

Stephen C. Carlson (scarlson@washdc.mindspring.com)
Wed, 11 Sep 1996 13:40:25 -0400

I was looking at Mt20:20-28 [= Mk10:35-45], the incident where the
mother (Mt20:21) of the sons of Zebadee comes to Jesus and asks him
to declare that her two sons will sit (KAQISWSIN) at his right (EK
DEXIWN SOU) and left (EX EUWNUMWN SOU). Jesus responds that they
didn't know (OUK OIDATE - note plural) what they were asking for
(Mt20:22 = Mk10:38), then affirms that they will indeed drink from
his cup (Mt20:23=Mk10:39), but the right and left have already been
prepared for someone else by the Father.

Now I had always assumed that "on the right and left of Jesus" meant
positions of honor with regard to Jesus, and most of the commentaries
agree with that. After all, Stephen saw "the Son of Man standing at
the right hand of God" (Ac7:56). The problems I'm having with this
interpretation are (a) the Greek idiom usually makes "hand" explicit,
which it is not here, and (b) I can't recall how being on the *left*
of someone is a good thing. Compare this with Mt25:33 where the sheep
are on the right and the goats on the left.

Furthermore, the presense of their mother in Matthew's version seems
quite odd. Who asks for an important position through his mother? I
don't exactly buy the common explanation that Matthew is trying to tone
the anti-disciple aspect of Mark's version by putting the request on
the lips of their mother. That can't be right, because Mt20:22 is clear
that Jesus understood immediately who really was behind the request,
and, I said earlier, it seems even worse for the reputation of such
important disciples to be hiding behind their mother.

So, the request is a puzzle, and the fact that the mother makes the
request in Matthew is also puzzling. I've come up a possible way to
understand this story that seems to make sense, but I'd like all of
your input on it.

The request to sit at the right and left of Jesus is loaded with
irony: this is made clear by Jesus' response: you don't know what
you're asking for. The next time we see the mother of John and
James is at the crucifixion (Mt27:56 = Mk15:40 [called Salome]),
where, sure enough, Jesus has someone at his right and his left
(Mt27:38 = Mk15:27). This connection is brought out quite subtly
in Matthew, who uses her to link the two passages, but very much
lacking in Mark. Although she (or they) may not have know it at
the time, their request is yet another (ironic) prediction of the
crucifixion, occuring immediately after the third passion prediction
by Jesus. Luke's summary that "the disciples did not grasp what
what was said" (18:34) is consistent with that.

Some questions:

1. Am I correct about the literary function of the mother of the sons
of Zebedee in Matthew?

2. In Greek, is there any passage in which sitting at someone's left
shows a position of honor?

3. The request was to declare that they *sit* at Jesus' right and
left. I know that Roman crucifixions sometimes provided a seat
for the victim, but how does that square breaking his legs (see
Jn19:32-33)? Did the Romans remove the seat and then break the

4. James was executed c. 42 (cf. Ac12:2). Does anybody know what
happened to John the son of Zebedee?

5. Has any scholar discussed this interpretation?

Stephen Carlson

Stephen C. Carlson                   : Poetry speaks of aspirations,
scarlson@mindspring.com              : and songs chant the words.
http://www.mindspring.com/~scarlson/ :               -- Shujing 2.35