Pericopal Cuttings: A Bird’s Eye View

Comes of Würzburg, eighth century, fol. 4v, displaying the incipits and explicits of the Epistles from Quinquagesima through Ember Wednesday in Lent.

Some of the most frequent comments and questions that we receive in our ongoing field testing are those regarding the beginning and ending points of various pericopes. It can be a little perplexing at first — an appointed Gospel may stop or start halfway through a paragraph in your Bible, or maybe the appointed Prophecies ignore chapter divisions with reckless abandon. Perhaps, as in these weeks of Epiphany, an Epistle begins or ends in the middle of a verse. The short response to this is that these pericopal cuttings are usually several centuries older than the verse or chapter numberings in a modern Bible, and the proper question is to ask why the verses and chapters, when they were established, ignored the existing pericopes. But I digress.

The more helpful answer is probably the one that I gave to one inquirer who was curious to know why it was that the Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent, Matthew 21:1–9, didn’t continue through verse 11. I’ve reproduced the requisite texts below so that you can take a look for yourself.

Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me. And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.”

All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ ”

So the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them. They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set Him on them. And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Hosanna in the highest!”

Matthew 21:1–9, NKJV

And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, “Who is this?”

So the multitudes said, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.”

Matthew 21:10–11, NKJV

If we were looking at this single instance, we might shrug our shoulders and add the two extra verses. After all, the New King James Version, the translation we are using, inserts a new heading after verse 11, placing these verse together in one division. But a quick look at the sources shows something rather striking: none of our sources, spanning some 1300 or more years, does anything like that. Not a single one goes beyond verse 9 in the appointed reading for the First Sunday in Advent.

A quick look through the rest of the lectionary gives an answer as to why — these verses already have a place in the lectionary. The Gospel for the Tuesday of Invocavit is Matthew 21:10–17, recounting the cleansing of the temple, the text of which is provided below.

When Jesus had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, “Who is this?”

So the multitudes said, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.”

Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’ ”

Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them. But when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did, and the children crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant and said to Him, “Do You hear what these are saying?”

And Jesus said to them, “Yes. Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise’?”

Then He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and He lodged there, and taught them concerning the kingdom of God.

Matthew 21:10–17, NKJV

As you can see, the two verses that had seemed at first to be missing from the lectionary already have a home in this pericope, read at the beginning of Lent. With the emphasis of Lent on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in the context of spiritual warfare, you might well see this Gospel text as an illustration of the cleansing of each one of our hearts that is the constant goal of the Christian Church, and most especially during the season of Lent.

But after seeing this instance, I was curious. How, I wondered, did the latter part of the Gospel according to St. Matthew fit into the logic and order of the lectionary? This is what I found.

Matthew 21:1–9 – First Sunday in Advent
Matthew 21:10–17 – Tuesday of Invocavit
Matthew 21:18–22 – Markan parallel (11:11–23) is appointed for Friday of Trinity 3
Matthew 21:23–27 – Wednesday of Trinity 4
Matthew 21:28–32 – Friday of Epiphany 5
Matthew 21:33b–46 – Friday of Reminiscere

Matthew 22:1–14 – Trinity 20
Matthew 22:15–21 – Trinity 23
Matthew 22:22–33 – Lukan parallel (20:27–40) is appointed for Wednesday of Holy Trinity
Matthew 22:34–46 – Trinity 18

Matthew 23:1–12 – Tuesday of Reminiscere
Matthew 23:13–23 – Friday of Trinity 8
Matthew 23:24–33 – Lukan parallel (11:37–46) is appointed for Friday of Trinity 9
Matthew 23:34–39 – St. Stephen

Matthew 24:1–2 – Markan parallel (13:1–2) is in the appointed Gospel for Sts. Gervasius and Protasius
Matthew 24:3–13 – St. Basilides and Companions/Sts. Processus and Martinian
Matthew 24:14 – Markan parallel (13:10) is in the appointed Gospel for Friday of Trinity 19
Matthew 24:15–28 – Trinity 25
Matthew 24:29–31 – Friday of Trinity 25
Matthew 24:32–36 – Lukan parallel (21:29–33) is in the appointed Gospel for Advent 2
Matthew 24:37–42 – Friday of Trinity 24
Matthew 24:42–47 – Sts. Damasus/Sylvester/Gregory/&c.
Matthew 24:48–51 – Markan parallel (13:33–37) is appointed for Friday of Trinity 27/St. Hilary of Poitiers

Matthew 25:1–13 – Trinity 27/Common of a Virgin
Matthew 25:14–30 – Wednesday of Trinity 26/St. Nicholas/Marcellus/Basil/&c
Matthew 25:31–46 – Monday of Invocavit/Trinity 26

Matthew 26:1—27:66 – Palm Sunday

Matthew 28:1–7 – Vigil of Easter
Matthew 28:8–15 – Friday of Quasimodo Geniti
Matthew 28:16–20 – Easter Friday

The only overlap in all of these eight chapters was Matthew 24:42 – “Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming,” which served as the closing phrase in one pericope and the opening phrase in another. And in all of these eight chapters, not a single verse is missing. The various sections of this portion of St. Matthew’s Gospel that are not read in his words are all read according to the accounts of either St. Mark or St. Luke.

As you can see, the traditional lectionary, of which we have here only a fragment, is something of an immensely complex puzzle in which nearly every piece of the Gospels fits precisely into place. If any piece seems to be missing, it always seems to show up in another location, sometimes rather unexpectedly. The genius of the various compilers of the lectionary tradition over the centuries is clearly apparent, and I hope to provide you with more examples of this painstaking precision in the future. In the meantime, perhaps you will at least leave with some appreciation of the innate unity and coherence of the lectionary tradition as it has been handed down for the last millennium and a half.

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