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J. R. C. Cousland

Associate Professor
Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies
University of British Columbia

Course: Introduction to Biblical Studies
Syllabus Section: The Gospel of Matthew
Audience: Undergraduates


The objectives of these lesson plans are to familiarize readers with the some of the distinctive literary and theological characteristics of Matthew's Gospel by moving through the Gospel in order. The material can be compressed into one rapid overview or dealt with in a more in-depth fashion, as successive lessons. The plans can serve as the basis for independent learning or expanded into formal lessons.

Background Essays on Matthew:

Donald Senior, "Reading through Matthew's Gospel"

Anders Runesson, "Matthew, Gospel According to"

Pre-class Preparation:

Students should read the entire Gospel, and give special attention to reading the relevant chapters.

I. Matthew Overview

The first lesson focusses on the Gospel of Matthew as a whole, paying special attention to its distinctive literary characteristics, and particularly to its literary genre. Over the last few decades it has come to be generally accepted that the canonical gospels are not a genre unto themselves, as was once thought, but are best regarded as examples of ancient biography or bioi ("lives"). They are narratives that present the bios ("life") of Jesus and, in doing so, relate the good news (euaggelion) of Jesus's life, death, and resurrection.

As one of the Synoptic Gospels Matthew has close affinities with Mark and Luke.

On the generally accepted view of Synoptic relationships, this close affinity is explained by the two-document hypothesis, which argues that Matthew is reliant upon the Gospel of Mark and the Sayings Source Q for much of the material in his Gospel ("Gospels"). This understanding of Matthew's sources means that the structural organization of the Gospel is a feature of Matthew's redactional or editorial hand. Most visibly, he has arranged his materials (including his own sources) in such a way that, instead of the more episodic narratives found in Mark and Luke, he has produced five substantial blocks of Jesus's teaching: the Sermon on the Mount (chs 5–7), the Mission Discourse (9:35–11:1), the Parable Discourse (13:1–52), the Community Discourse (18:1–19:1), and the Eschatological Discourse (24:1–25:46). Equally distinctive are the ten fulfillment citations that he has included in his Gospel to demonstrate how various features of Jesus's life constitute the fulfillment of prophetic texts found in the Old Testament: Matthew 1:22–23 (citing Isaiah 7:14); 2:15 (Hosea 11:1); 2:17–18 (Jeremiah 31:15); 2:23 (?);4:14–16 (Isaiah 9:1–2); 8:17 (Isaiah 53:4); 12:17–21 (Isaiah 42:1–4,9); 13:35 (Psalm 78:2); 21:5 (Isaiah 62:11 + Zechariah 9:9); 27:9–10 (Zechariah 11:13).

Questions for discussion:

  1. 1. Is it appropriate to describe the Gospel of Matthew as a bios? What about its theological dimensions?
  2. 2. Why has Matthew chosen to construct his Gospel as a combination of narratives and discourses?
  3. 3. Matthew's five discourses are embedded in the narrative of Jesus's life. Are the discourses intended to reflect the specific historical time frame of Jesus's ministry or the later church situation of Matthew's own day? Or do they do both?
  4. 4. What is the chief focus of the fulfillment citations?

II. Matthew Chapters 1–2

This lesson is concerned to address two questions: "Who is Jesus?" and "How does Matthew establish the context for Jesus's advent?" The answer to the first question emerges in the Gospel's opening verse and is soon repeated at 1:18: Jesus is the messiah. But the Gospel furnishes its readers with far more information: he is the son of David and son of Abraham. He demonstrates an intimate connection with the patriarchs and kings from Israel's past, as is firmly established by the genealogy that Matthew provides. Jesus's own culminating role in this history has been orchestrated by God through the betrothal and marriage of Mary and Joseph, where the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary and she gives birth to Jesus while still a virgin. As the first of the Gospel's first formula citations indicates, the prophet Isaiah (Isa 7:14) had already predicted the appearance of Jesus Emmanuel who, as "God with us" (cf. Matt 28:20), demonstrates his abiding presence with the people of God. Jesus, then, is the messiah, but he is so much more.

Matthew establishes the context for Jesus's advent by outlining the political and geographical circumstances of Jesus's birth. Herod the Great (ruled 37–4 BCE), Rome' s client king was still ruling when a new "king of Israel" (Matt 2:2) was born in Bethlehem in Judea, the city of King David's birth. Jesus's birth immediately develops a contrast between King Herod, who wishes to kill the child Jesus and the gentile magi, who have come to venerate him. In seeking refuge in Egypt, the holy family reenacts the exile of Israel and its subsequent return. In contrast to Luke chapter 2, Matthew accounts for Jesus's residence in Nazareth as a result of the potential threat posed by Herod's son, Archelaus (ruled 4 BCE –6 CE), causing the family to decamp to Nazareth in Galilee. Jesus's geographical and political context, therefore, already adumbrates the opposition of Israel's leaders (cf. 2:4), and the future acceptance of the Gentiles.

Questions for discussion:

  1. 1. How is Jesus "so much more" than simply the messiah?
  2. 2. Gentiles also figure in Matthew's genealogy (Matt 1:5). How is Matthew developing the idea that Jesus is a figure who both belongs to Israel but also transcends it?
  3. 3. Why are there so many fulfillment citations in the first two chapters of Matthew (1:22–23; 2:15; 2:17–18; 2:23; cf. 2:5–6)?
  4. 4. Why does the genealogy focus so strongly upon the figure of David?

III. Matthew 3–4

This lesson examines how Matthew understood the role of John the Baptist, who is mentioned in all four gospels and in Josephus. John was renowned for the baptisms he conducted in the Jordan river (cf. Acts 19:1–7), so much so that even the Pharisees and Sadducees seek out his baptism (3:7). John's strident condemnation of them foreshadows later points in the Gospel—especially chapter 23—where Jesus condemns them as well. In Matthew, John is explicitly identified as Elijah (17:12), and his ministry is consciously paralleled with Jesus's ministry and with the "violent fate of the prophets," the notion that any true prophet suffers or dies at the hands of his own people. Matthew addresses the problem of why the lesser John baptizes the greater Jesus by appealing to righteousness —a concept fundamental to Matthew's understanding of the Christian life. Jesus's baptism is ratified by the descent of the Spirit of God upon him and his authority is further established by his ability to withstand the temptations of Satan. Jesus is now able to embark on his ministry of teaching, healing, and proclamation of the kingdom. He settles in Capernaum in Galilee, begins to call his disciples, and sees his fame extend to the surrounding regions of the Decapolis, Syria, Judea, and Trans–Jordan. The gentile character of some of these regions anticipates the risen Jesus's command to make disciples of all nations (28:19).

Questions for discussion:

  1. 1. How does each of the canonical Gospels address the problem of the greater (Jesus) being baptized by the lesser (John)?
  2. 2. Recent studies of Galilee have demonstrated that it was not predominantly populated by Gentiles in Jesus's day. Why, then, does Matthew suggest that it was (4:15)?
  3. 3. Matthew 4 variously describes Jesus's adversary as Satan, the tempter, and the devil. What traditions is Matthew drawing upon for this terminology?
  4. 4. The stories and utterances of Jesus and John the Baptist are deliberately aligned in Matthew's Gospel. Find additional examples of this parallelism. Why do you think the Evangelist has aligned the two?

IV. Matthew Chapters 5–7

The next lesson centers on the three chapters of the Sermon on the Mount (see here and here) where Jesus is shown in his guise as Messiah of word. The Sermon is the first and most extensive of the Gospel's five discourses, and contains some of the Gospel's (and Jesus's) most distinctive utterances, including the beatitudes, the antitheses the Lord's Prayer, and the Golden Rule. Taken as a whole, it presents Jesus's hearers with the requirements for entering the kingdom of heaven.

Although Moses is not explicitly mentioned in the discourse, Moses typology is pervasive throughout the Sermon, and Jesus is sometimes identified as the new Moses. Just as Moses taught the Torah to the Israelites at a mountain (Sinai), Jesus teaches his understanding of the law to the people from a mountain. And although Moses is not identified in the antitheses, it is he to whom Jesus alludes when he says, "You have heard it said…" In addition, the five discourses of Matthew's Gospel are sometimes likened to the Pentateuch/Torah, the five books of Moses. Apart from presenting Jesus's teaching on the law, the Sermon offers distinctive teaching on almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. Like Matthew's other discourses, it concludes with an allusion to the coming judgment.

Questions for discussion:

  1. 1. The Sermon on the Mount is generally regarded as a classic of world literature. What features contribute to its impact?
  2. 2. Why did Matthew situate the Sermon on the Mount at the very outset of Jesus's ministry?
  3. 3. What features of the Sermon on the Mount would have made it especially valuable for the instruction of recent converts to Christianity?
  4. 4. What other features in the Gospel of Matthew support the identification of Jesus as the new Moses?

V. Matthew Chapters 8–13

This segment stresses the outworking of Jesus's ministry and the increasingly polarized response to it. If the Sermon on the Mount demonstrates the Messiah of word, the two chapters that follow it depict the miracles of the Messiah of Deed. The sequence consists of ten miracle stories—primarily healings and exorcisms, but also the nature miracle of the stilling of the storm. All of them demonstrate the unrivalled authority possessed by Jesus. The Messiah of Deeds sequence is especially rich in christological designations of Jesus. In chapters 8 and 9 alone, five different appellations are used to describe him: Teacher, Lord, Son of Man, Son of David, and Son of God. Each gives expression to a different nuance of Jesus's identity, while also saying something about the individuals using these titles. The same is true for the later accusations that Jesus is, or is colluding with, Beelzebul (Matthew 10:25; 12:24). The following chapters chronicle a widening gap among Jesus's hearers. Jesus's actions assume an immediate polarizing effect, resulting in increasing adulation on the one hand and obduracy and even blasphemy on the other. and the Galilean towns that fail to acknowledge Jesus, such as Chorazin and Bethsaida, will experience a condemnation similar to that of Sodom and Gomorrah.

This segment includes two further discourses. As can be inferred from its title, the Mission discourse is concerned with Jesus's sending out of the twelve disciples to the people of Israel. This "particularist" mission is to be confined exclusively to Israel: not even the Samaritans can be included. The third discourse consists of seven parables. With the exception of the parable of the sower, all of them elucidate the kingdom of heaven. These insights become clear, however, only to Jesus's disciples. Because they possess understanding, they are able to comprehend the meaning of the parables and their interpretations; but the crowds, who lack this faculty, fail to apprehend what Jesus is saying. The polarization continues.

Questions for discussion:

  1. 1. What are the various christological nuances of the designations Son of Man, Son of God, and Son of David?
  2. 2. Why does Jesus speak to the crowds in parables? How does Matthew's explanation differ from the one found in the Gospel of Mark? What do these explanations suggest about the nature of parabolic speech?
  3. 3. The final judgment assumes increasing importance in this segment of Matthew. Why is this the case? How does this emphasis fit into the overall narrative?
  4. 4. Jesus's person and ministry exercise a strong polarizing effect on those around him. Construct a list of those in this segment (chaps 8–13) who are supportive Jesus and those who do not.

VI. Matthew 14–20

This segment illustrates the shift where Jesus moves from a broadly based public ministry (such as in the feedings of the four- and five-thousand) to a more limited involvement with his disciples (such as happens with the transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah representing the law and the prophets). Especially prominent in this more intimate context is Peter's confession that Jesus "is the Messiah, the Son of the living God" and Jesus's response that Peter is the rock on which he will build his church and the one to whom he imparts the authority to bind and loose. Similar terminology recurs in the Community discourse, which features the only other reference to the church in the canonical Gospels, and indicates that authority to bind and loose has also been bequeathed to the church. The emphasis of the discourse is clearly upon church praxis, including the need to care for the weak and disadvantaged and to forgive one another. Once these issues are settled, Jesus moves on to the final phase of his ministry, travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem via Transjordan. The journey serves as a metaphor for Jesus's own personal destiny by increasingly foreshadowing his journey's end—the necessity for Jesus to suffer at the hands of the chief priests and the scribes, to give his life as a ransom for many, and then be raised on the third day.

Questions for discussion:

  1. 1. What does it mean to have the authority to bind and to loose?
  2. 2. Why is Matthew the only Gospel to mention the church?
  3. 3. When Jesus describes himself as "a ransom for many," what does he mean? What metaphor underlies the ransom terminology?
  4. 4. Peter features more prominently in Matthew than in any of the other Gospels. What precisely is the Gospel's attitude towards Peter? Is it favorable, unfavorable, or non-committal? Why?

VII. Matthew 21–25

This segment focuses on the intensifying conflict that characterizes the whole of Jesus's Jerusalem. The crowd's rapturous accolade of Hosanna is soon eclipsed by Jesus's condemnation of the money changers and his compassionate healing of the blind and lame. Conflict continues to dominate Jesus's interactions in the Temple, where he engages in successive controversies with various Jewish groups—the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians—defeating each in turn. The parables that Jesus invokes at this time have a pronounced salvation-historical dimension to them that condemns the Jewish leadership for consistently rejecting the prophets and messengers whom God has sent. This conflict culminates in Jesus's anti-Pharisaic invective in chapter 23. The woes with which it begins can be viewed as a counterpart to the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. Its harsh anti-Pharisaic features are often thought to reflect the conflict between Christians and Jewish leaders of Matthew's own day, rather than the controversies of Jesus's day.

The eschatological discourse follows immediately afterword. As its name suggests, it is concerned with the events of the end time—the apocalyptic end of days, and the ensuing final judgment. The time of the end will be marked by numerous portents, including the appearance of false messiahs and the desolating sacrilege. Believers are to be vigilant and await the coming of the Son of Man. The parables in chapter 25 of the bridesmaids and talents further emphasize the need for vigilance, while the parable of the sheep and the goats provides the Gospel with a final and distinctive tableau of judgement. It demonstrates that true righteousness consists in loving one's neighbor; in doing so one demonstrates one's love for Jesus. This ethic recapitulates the love commandments expressed earlier in the Gospel (Matthew 5:43–48; 22:37–40), and vindicates the message preached by Jesus in the Temple.

Questions for discussion:

  1. 1. Matthew twice cites a passage from Hosea 6:6: "I demand mercy not sacrifice" (Matt 9:13; 12:7). Given his emphasis on the enduring validity of the law as well as the need to be compassionate, how does Matthew understand this text?
  2. 2. Many scholars would argue that Matthew's representation of the Pharisees is misleading. What were the chief characteristics of the Pharisees? Why would Matthew have been so strongly opposed to them?
  3. 3. Why is divine judgment such a prominent feature of Matthew's Gospel?
  4. 4. What is Matthew's understanding of salvation history?

VIII. Matthew 26–28

The final gospel segment is dominated by Jesus's passion and resurrection. It immediately opens with a reference by Jesus to his upcoming crucifixion, and quickly segues into the account of the Passover and Last Supper. Jesus is then betrayed or forsaken by his disciples, and the chief priests and elders orchestrate the legal proceedings against him. Matthew is the only Gospel in which Judas's repentance and suicide are described (cf. Acts 1:15–20), and where Pontius Pilate washes his hands to absolve himself of Jesus's guilt. In their stead, the people and "their children" (Matt 27:25) assume responsibility for Jesus's blood. This exchange between the people and Pilate likely reflects Matthew's conviction that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE was punishment for Jesus's death.

The narrative of Jesus's death, burial, and resurrection is also characterized by distinctively Matthean emphases. Earthquakes, darkness at noon, the resurrection of saints, and the appearance of angels all highlight the cosmic dimensions of Jesus's death and resurrection. Matthew's unique inclusion of the narrative of the soldiers commissioned to guard Jesus's tomb further contributes to this impression (Matt 28:1–4), while also countering any suggestions that the disciples had stolen Jesus's body. Jesus's "great commission," which concludes his Gospel underlines Jesus's absolute authority and continued presence with believers as Jesus Emmanuel, and stresses the need to make disciples of all nations.

Questions for discussion:

  1. 1. Why does Matthew conclude with a universalist mission charge by Jesus, when in the mission discourse the disciples were directed to go only to Israel?
  2. 2. In what ways does Matthew shift the responsibility for Jesus's death from the Romans to the Jewish people?
  3. 3. Matthew emphasizes the cosmic dimensions of Jesus's advent and resurrection more than any of the other evangelists. What features does he emphasize to chronicle the unprecedented details of Jesus's life?
  4. 4. Why does Matthew consistently situate Jesus on a mountaintop? How many times does he do so?

Further Reading:

Ian Boxall, Discovering Matthew. Content, Interpretation, Reception (London: SPCK, 2014).

Craig Evans, Matthew (NCBC; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Ulrich Luz, The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids/Bletchley: Eerdmans/Paternoster, 2005).

Elaine M. Wainwright, The Gospel According to Matthew: The Basileia of the Heavens is Near at Hand. Phoenix Guides to the New Testament (Sheffield: Phoenix, 2014).

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