The Gospel According to Matthew - Introduction
The Gospel of Matthew highlights the Jewish origin and identity of Jesus and his first followers more comprehensively than any other piece of early Christian literature. In Matthew Jesus is God's anointed, or messiah, and the one who embodies and interprets God's plan for God's people. Jesus is presented as a great teacher of Israel like Moses for the present age. Jesus speaks with wisdom and authority reminiscent of Moses, unlike the ordinary teachers of Matthew's day, scribes and Pharisees, whom the author rejects ( 7.28–29; 23.2–3 ). Moreover, the Gospel draws from Israel's history. Jesus’ lineage is traced back to Abraham through David ( 1.2–17 ), and the title of the Gospel is “an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” ( 1.1 ). There is little mistaking here the Jewishness of the author, of Jesus, and the audience envisaged in the Gospel. The author frequently uses biblical quotations to validate or explain the actions of Jesus. Many of these are introduced with a phrase indicating the fulfillment of a prophecy ( 1.22; 2.15; 2.17; 2.23; 4.14; 8.17; 12.17; 13.35; 21.4; 27.9 ). The formula citations help to ground Matthew's story in that of ancient Israel.
The Gospel of Matthew was written after the Gospel of Mark. All but sixty verses of the Gospel of Mark appear in Matthew. Modifications of Mark's story are easily identified. For example, Matthew's treatment of Jesus’ disciples, of Jewish law, and of the community's relationship to those in power consistently modifies the comparable episodes in the Gospel of Mark. Matthew corrects inaccuracies about things Jewish, and dissents from Mark's picture of disciples failing to understand their master's teaching. Another major source used by Matthew is the collection of sayings of Jesus designated by scholars as “Q” (from the German word “Quelle,” meaning “source”). Luke also used a version of this source, as the many very close parallels found only in those two Gospels indicate. (See further pp. 4–5 NT.) This Gospel is a presentation of the life and teachings of Jesus intended for a particular community. Issues of local governance ( 18.6–20 ), ethics (chs 5–7 ), succession and leadership ( 16.18–20 ), how to handle conflict with opposing groups and authorities ( 17.15–21; 23.1–3 ), and how the community should face the future are examples of the advice directed to Matthew's church. If the story of Jesus has been formulated to speak to problems of Matthew's community, then one should look for clues to that social context in the narrative. Some difficulties appear to have been the result of the first Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE by the Roman general and eventual emperor, Titus. This monumental historical event is most likely referred to in 21.43–44 and 22.7 . In terms of Roman political history the Gospel belongs to the end of the Flavian dynasty or shortly thereafter. In terms of the social and religious developments in Israel, Matthew belongs to that fluid and uncertain period between the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 and the emergence of rabbinic Judaism as the decisive force and voice in the land between 135 and 200. These hints as to its socio‐religious context then date the composition of the gospel sometime between the last decade of the first century and the early second century. While the traditional place of origin for Matthew has been considered the city of Antioch in ancient western Syria, some scholars consider a southern Galilean city, such as Tiberias or Sepphoris, a more likely location for the writing of the Gospel. It was in Galilee that followers of a Pharisaic party and devoted Jewish followers of Jesus would have been engaged in the intense rivalry suggested by the gospel ( 23.1–36 ).
In Matthew Jesus presents an understanding of ancient history and recent events, of the Torah, and of the future as the proper path for Israel. This counsel is expressed, for example, in the parables unique to Matthew in chs 20–22 and 25 and in the Sermon on the Mount (chs 5–7 ). Some of Matthew's contemporaries, however, disagreed with his understanding of Jewish history and his claims about Jesus. For this reason Matthew is also the most contentious and polemical of the Gospels. There was a struggle for leadership and direction following 70 CE in Israel. Matthew's community or church was in the midst of that struggle. This tension is a defining feature of the Gospel. The central opponents in Matthew are the Pharisees. They are characterized hyperbolically as “hypocrites,” and teachers who “lock people out of the kingdom of heaven” ( 23.13,23,25 ). A contemporary of Matthew, the Jewish historian Josephus, provides another picture of the Pharisees ( Ant. 13.297,399–417 ). He says Pharisees were popular with the people. They were admired for being “the most accurate interpreters of the law.” And they played a central role in the formation of rabbinic Judaism, a coalition that ultimately provided for the survival of Judaism after the destruction of the Temple. Pharisees also developed legal interpretations called “the traditions of the elders,” which were not recorded in the law of Moses. In Matthew's day serious tensions developed between various Jewish groups over which laws and traditions would govern Jewish life.
It is no surprise then that in Matthew one finds Jesus arguing about tradition and interpretation to a much greater extent than in the other Gospels. Jesus explicitly takes up the argument about “the tradition of the elders” with the Pharisees in 15.1–20 . He has similar disputes with Pharisees over sabbath observance ( 12.1–8 ), divorce ( 19.1–9 ), taxes ( 22.15–22 ), and the greatest commandment ( 22.34–40 ). The competition between Matthew's community formed around Jesus and the group represented by the Pharisees builds as the Gospel unfolds, culminating in ch 23 . Here Jesus elaborates at length on the inadequacies of the Pharisees, their influence, and their actions.
The highly charged language about such Jewish teachers in Matthew is best understood as inter‐Jewish conflict and should be interpreted against the backdrop of the instability characteristic of first‐century Palestine. Failure to appreciate this feature of the Gospel's setting has led at times to unfortunate misunderstandings of key Matthean texts. A prominent example is the passage known as the “cry of all the people,” associated with the trial of Jesus and found only in Matthew 27.25 . Some within the Christian tradition have mistakenly taken this passage to mean that “the Jews” as a race should perpetually be held accountable for killing Jesus. In fact, read in the context of Matthew's post–70 CE setting, 27.25 emerges as a charge which, while caustic, is nevertheless typical of a people or group divided against itself, as was the case in Matthew's day. Matthew's audience could see these words fulfilled in the disaster of 70 CE. Similarly, other polemical passages in the Gospel should be understood within their proper social context and not as later Christian denunciations of all Jews.