Introduction to Matthew’s Gospel

by Maxim Cardew

Authorship and Date

The author of the Gospel has traditionally been identified with “Matthew,” who according to this Gospel is one of Jesus’ twelve disciples (see Matthew 9:9; he is called “Levi” in Luke 5:27). The main source of this tradition is Irenaeus (a second-century bishop) who writes: “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect” (Against Heresies 3.1.1). It is also possible that Papias (another second-century bishop) refers to this tradition: “Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language” (quoted by Eusebius, in his Church History, 3.39.16).

It is extremely unlikely, however, that this tradition is accurate. The main argument against it is that Matthew is widely agreed to be dependent for much of his information on Mark’s Gospel, and if Matthew were an eye-witness (as on the traditional view) it is unclear why this would be the case. The high level of verbal agreement between Matthew and Mark also suggests that Matthew’s Gospel was written in Greek, and not Hebrew (against the traditional account).

Who, then, is the author? Many have suggested that the author of the Gospel is a Christian Jew, possibly identified indirectly by the author himself as a “scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:52). In favour of the author of the Gospel being a Christian Jew is the great interest that Matthew takes in showing that Jesus somehow “fulfils” the Old Testament. This is especially clear in his “formula quotations,” which repeatedly make this point (Matthew 1:22-23; 2:5-6; 2:15; 2:17-18; 2:23; 4:14-16; 8:17; 12:17–21; 13:35; 21:4–5; 27:9–10.2; note that scholars disagree as to what counts as a “formula quotation,” and how many there are). Matthew also uses the typically Jewish expression “kingdom of heaven,” thus avoiding unnecessary use of the word “God.” As we will see below, Matthew also seems to soften Mark’s negative approach to the Jewish law.

There are, however, important arguments against identifying the author as a Jew. The most convincing argument against the author being Jewish is that he seems to misunderstand Hebrew poetic technique in Matthew 21:1-11: he has Jesus ride in on both a donkey and a colt, in literal fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, but any Jew (as well as Mark and Luke) would understand that Zechariah 9:9 refers to only one animal, and the repetition is poetic. Despite this difficulty, however, many scholars still regard the author as a Christian Jew.

There is also disagreement about where the Gospel was written. The traditional location, still supported by several scholars, is Antioch, a known centre of Christian Judaism (see Galatians 2:11-14). But Galilee and Alexandria have also been suggested (Galilee as a centre of Pharisaic activity that could explain the emphasis on conflict with the Pharisees, Alexandria as another major centre of Judaism). There is more agreement about the date of the Gospel, which almost all scholars regard as being written after the destruction of the Temple in 70. If Matthew used Mark as a source, then this is almost certain. Furthermore, the destruction of the city in the Jewish revolt against the Romans seems to be referred to in Matthew 22:7. The precise date of the Gospel is unknown, but a date in the 80s CE is plausible.

Judaism and the Law

We have already touched on this issue in the discussion of whether the author of the Gospel was a Christian Jew. On the question of the role of the Jewish Law, Matthew seems to emphasize the ongoing importance of keeping the Law, and softens some of Mark’s more negative statements. In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus says he has come not to “abolish” but to “fulfil” the Law, and condemns those who encourage disobedience. He seems to tone down Mark’s ban on divorce, which is allowed in the Old Testament (Matthew 19:1-9; compare Mark 10:1-12), and applies Jesus’ apparent abrogation of the Jewish food laws specifically to handwashing alone (Matthew 15:1-20, especially Matthew 15:20; compare Mark 7:1-23).

At the same time, however, Matthew employs strong polemic that has in the past been interpreted as showing hostility to Judaism. Matthew refers to “their synagogues” (Matthew 12:9), possibly showing separation from Judaism. At the conclusion of the parable of the wicked tenants (Matthew 21:33-46), Matthew adds to Mark’s account that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people/nation (Greek: ethnos) that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matthew 21:43). In Matthew 23:1-36, there is harsh condemnation of the “scribes and Pharisees” as “hypocrites.” Most notoriously, the trial of Jesus by Pilate before the people of Jerusalem, the crowd (having demanded the crucifixion of Jesus) cries out: “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25).

Despite these signs of separation and hostility, however, these do not disprove that Matthew did not regard himself as standing in a substantial degree of continuity with Judaism, as shown by his positive statements about the Law. Matthew’s harsh polemic echoes equally strong criticism from other Jewish groups at the time (especially the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls), and in any case “the Pharisees” should not be identified with Judaism as a whole. The cry of the crowd in Matthew 27:25 can plausibly be interpreted as Matthew seeking an explanation for the destruction of Jerusalem during the Jewish revolt against Rome: it was a punishment for crucifying Jesus. We see similar explanations in other Jewish texts written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. This verse, then, should not be taken as condemning Jews throughout history for the death of Jesus.

Christology

Matthew’s Gospel combines a number of Christological emphases. Jesus is, for Matthew, both “Son of God” (as well as the birth narrative, see Matthew 3:17; 4:1-11; 14:33; 16:16) and Son of David (see Matthew 1:1-17). A number of scholars have also seen in Matthew’s Gospel a refection of major Old Testament narratives that could shed light on Matthew’s Christology. Especially important is the figure of Moses, whose life story is reflected in the birth narratives, the account of the transfiguration (compare Matthew 17:2 to Exodus 34:29) and the division of Jesus’s teaching into five “discourses” (chapters 5-7; 10; 13; 18; 24-25), which may reflect the fivefold division of the Jewish Law.

Whilst Matthew does undoubtedly draw on the story of Moses in his portrayal of Jesus, he also includes a number of additional distinctive emphases. These include a possible identification of Jesus with the Jewish figure of “Wisdom” (Matthew 11:19; 11:25-30; 23:34), though this is implicit rather than stated directly. Also important for understanding Matthew’s Christology is his “presence” motif, which appears at the beginning (Matthew 1:23), middle (Matthew 18:20), and end (Matthew 28:20) of his narrative: Jesus is present with his people, and God is somehow present through him.

Further Reading

For free online introductory materials for Matthew’s Gospel, begin here:

You will find an annotated list of good online starting points for the discussion of the Gospel of Matthew. When you have looked at these introductory materials, you can explore further by going to other sections on the Gospel of Matthew: Books and Dissertations, Articles and Audio and Video.

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