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

Genre and Moral Instruction.

1.

Prior to our century Matthew was, despite its many gaps and relative brevity, often referred to as a biography. Most twentieth-century scholars, however, have rejected this view: the canonical gospels are not historical retrospectives but rather expressions of the earliest Christian proclamation. Yet recently there has been a change in the minds of at least some scholars, a reversion to the older view, to the idea that the gospels are biographies—if the term is used not in its modern sense but in accord with ancient usage. The canonical gospels then qualify as a subtype of Graeco-Roman biography.

2.

The truth is that Matthew is an omnibus of genres: apocalypse, community rule, catechism, cult aetiology, etc. Like the book of Job it is several things at once, a mix of genres, including biography. There are indeed significant resemblances between the First Gospel and certain Hellenistic biographies; and despite its incompleteness as a biography in the modern sense, it is none the less the partial record of a man's life.

3.

The content of Matthew's faith partly explains why the First Gospel is biographical. The distinctiveness of Matthew's thinking over against that of his non-Christian Jewish contemporaries was the acceptance of Jesus as the centre of his religion: it was around him as a person that his theological thinking revolved. For Matthew, revelation belonged supremely to the life of the Son of God. The significance of this can be measured when Matthew's comparatively brief gospel is set over against the literature of rabbinic Judaism. In rabbinic sources there are stories about rabbis but no sustained lives such as we find in the Gospel of Matthew, report upon report of what Rabbi X or Rabbi Y purportedly said, but no biographies. Particular sages are seldom an organizing category or principle in rabbinic literature. So whereas rabbinic Judaism, with its subordination of the individual to the community and its focus upon the Torah instead of a particular human being, produced no religious biographies, the substance of Matthew's faith was neither a dogmatic system nor a legal code but a human being whose life was, in outline and in detail, uniquely significant and therefore demanding of record.

4.

Matthew's biographical impulse also owes much to the circumstance that whenever social crisis results in fragmentation (as happened at the beginning of Christianity), so that the questioning of previous beliefs issues in the formation of a new social unit, new norms and authorities are inevitably generated, which are always most persuasively presented when embodied in examples: new fashions must first be modelled. In Matthew, Jesus is the new exemplar. There is a multitude of obvious connections between Jesus' words and his deeds. If Jesus indirectly exhorts others to be meek ( 5:5 ), he himself is such ( 11:29; cf. 21:5 ). If he enjoins mercy ( 5:7 ), he himself is merciful ( 9:27; 15:22; 20:30 ). If he congratulates those oppressed for God's cause ( 5:10 ), he himself suffers and dies innocently ( 27:23 ). Jesus further demands faithfulness to the law of Moses ( 5:17–20 ) and faithfully keeps that law during his ministry ( 8:4; 12:1–8, 9–14; 15:1–20 ). He recommends self-denial in the face of evil ( 5:39 ) and does not resist the evils done to him ( 26:67; 27:30 ). He calls for private prayer ( 6:6 ) and subsequently withdraws to a mountain to pray alone ( 14:23 ). Moreover, Jesus advises his followers to use certain words in prayer (‘your will be done’, 6:10 ; ‘do not bring us to the time of trial’, 6:13 ) and he uses those words in Gethsemane ( 26:41–2 ). He rejects the service of mammon ( 6:19 ), and he lives without concern for money ( 8:20 ). He commands believers to carry crosses ( 16:24 ), and he does so himself, both figuratively and literally.

5.

The evangelist's moral interest, apparent above all in the Sermon on the Mount, was well served by a story in which the crucial moral imperatives are imaginatively and convincingly incarnated. This the First Gospel supplies. To quote Clement of Alexandria, Matthew offers two types of teaching, ‘that which assumes the form of counselling to obedience, and that which is presented in the form of example’ (Ped. 1.1). Jesus embodies his speech; he lives as he speaks and speaks as he lives.

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