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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Matthew's Purpose and its Setting in Judaism.

1.

Following the revolt of 70 CE the Pharisees emerged dominant. They set in motion a process which was to allow Judaism to continue and even thrive after defeat. To the early stages of this process the rabbinic sources apply the term ‘Jamnia’, after the place where, according to tradition, Pharisaic sages congregated after the war. These sages were concerned with the disunity of the Jewish people and with the attraction of movements from without, including Christianity. They accordingly promoted unity, began the process of collecting their oral laws, sought to establish a standard calendar for the religious year, and tried to transfer to the synagogue rites previously performed in the temple itself. So in Matthew's time a highly self-conscious and probably aggressive Pharisaism was asserting itself to reunite Israel; and this involved defining itself in opposition to others, including Christians. It probably also involved activities Christians interpreted as persecution. Tolerance comes in times of self-confidence; but the period after the destruction was not such a time for formative Judaism.

2.

Matthew's mainly Jewish community had to come to terms with such a Judaism—a fact which helps explain the great interest in the scribes and Pharisees. That community seems, on the one hand, to have demanded its own inclusion within Judaism, whose faith it thought to share, and, on the other, to have sought the expansion of Judaism beyond strictly Jewish confines by challenging that faith to shed its tendency to ethnic privacy. But scholars disagree whether Matthew's community was still—as 23.3 so strongly implies—within Judaism or whether it had recently declared itself independent of its parent faith so that it had become a sect outside Judaism or, again, whether, having long been regarded as deviant by the Jewish community, it was in the process of deciding if it should leave while yet remaining under the authority of the local synagogue.

3.

Whatever the exact status of Matthew's community in relation to Judaism, his writing points to a process of differentiation which took place between his community and ‘their synagogue’. Believers in Jesus may have preferred to refer to their own gatherings not as ‘synagogue’—in Matthew the expression is ‘their synagogue’—but as ‘church’. Again, Christian leaders were not to be called ‘rabbi’, a term which was, in the Jamnian Judaism of Matthew's day, becoming an official title ( 23:7–8 ). Along with the differentiation went outright, polemical criticism, especially of the Pharisees. The cohesion of the believers in Jesus was no doubt strengthened by such criticism: a common enemy unites the divided and insecure.

4.

The establishment of group identity also involved legitimizing belief in Jesus over against Jewish criticism. Explicit about the existence of such criticism is ( 28:15 ), which no doubt helps account for the formula quotations, the parallels between Jesus and Moses, and Jesus' endorsement of the Torah. One detects in all this a sort of apologetics. Christians claimed to be vindicated by antiquity, to have a lawgiver like Moses, and to keep Torah.

5.

The need for group identity made the need for unity a paramount concern. This illuminates the emphasis in both the Sermon on the Mount and ch. 18 on forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness up to seven times is advised in Luke, but ‘seventy times (and) seven’ in Mt 18:22 . Despite its often violent polemics, perhaps no other ancient document shows more sensitivity to the desperate need for love and peace rather than hate and vengeance than does Matthew. The tendency towards reconciliation appears also in Matthew's desire not to give away too much of his Jewish heritage but to bridge as sensitively as possible the gulf between Jewish and Gentile believers. He tried to preserve both the old and the new ( 8:17; 13:52 ). While he called for a mission to Gentiles, he also recognized Israel's special place ( 10:5–6; 15:21–8 ) and insisted on the demands for a righteousness even higher than that of the Pharisees. The proof of Matthew's ecumenical character is that both Jewish and Gentile Christians welcomed it as their own: it became the chief gospel of both groups.

6.

Despite both the polemic and the ecclesiastical tactics, the gospel remains eloquent testimony to the faith that inspired Matthew. Further, we cannot doubt that while he had one eye on his own social setting, he also envisaged a broader readership. For it is only through a studied neglect of the obvious that one can miss that a major and perhaps the primary impulse behind the First Gospel was the natural desire to record what Jesus said and did and to preserve that memory for posterity. Matthew was composed so that the story of Jesus, rightly interpreted, might continue to be heard beyond as well as in his own time and place.

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