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

From: Larry Chouinard (
Date: Wed Sep 11 1996 - 17:52:08 EDT


You may be on to something by the reference to sitting on the <left and
right> of Jesus. The one problem I find is v.23, which seems to view the
<left and right> as positions of privilege afforded only by God. I am
also somewhat confused by your reference to Jesus" words as ironical.
Certainly the disciples see the positions as places of honor. Are you
suggesting that Jesus picks up on their language and answers in terms of
his approaching crucifixion? Thus, he is telling them that to be
crucified, one on the left and the other on the right was something only
the Father could grant. Hence, Jesus would be turning their request for
places of privilege into a subtle allusion to his death.

Have I understood your position correctly? If so, it appears that v.23
poses a problem for your interpretation. However, I do like the
observation concerning the presence of the mother of the sons of Zebedee
and the <right/left> reference at the cross.

Thanks for your observations.

Larry Chouinard
Kentucky Christian College

On Wed, 11 Sep 1996, Stephen C. Carlson wrote:

> 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
> legs?
> 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,
> : and songs chant the words.
> : -- Shujing 2.35

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