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detail of top of Oxyrhynchus papyrus 1 (P1)
verso containing Matt 1:1-3
[public domain image]
The first gospel in the NT canon introduces
itself as Christian scripture (Matt
1:1). Its opening words--βίβλος γενέσεως
(lit.: "book of Genesis")--echo the
Septuagint Greek name of
the first book of the Jewish Bible (cf. Gen 2:4, 5:1). But this work focuses
just on the origin of Jesus. To show
him qualified to be the Messiah predicted by scripture the author declares
him "son of David, son of Abraham" and rehearses a stylized lineage linking him to the
royal house of Judah (Matt
1:1-17; cf. Ps 89, 1 Chron 3).
More than any other NT author
Matthew insists that Jesus "fulfilled" prophecy (14x), often
citing scripture to support his narrative. Practically everything he
tells about Jesus' origins reflects some biblical text:
||a new star
||foreigners present gold & frankincense
||sojourn in Egypt
||death of children
Matthew even claims that Nazareth became Jesus' hometown
to fulfill prophecy (Matt 2:23).
A written record of such a prophecy, however, has never been found.
Matthew is so sure that Jesus fit biblical
predictions that, taking the poetic parallelism of Zech 9:9 literally, he
portrays Jesus entering Jerusalem seated on both an ass and its
colt (Matt 21:2-7). This
emphasis on fulfilling prophecy shows the author was a Jewish
Christian scribe who composed his work to counter questions
about Jesus' messianic credentials. But it also casts doubt on the
patristic tradition identifying him as a former tax-collector (Matt
9:9; cf. Origen &
Jerome), since Jews
who collected taxes were not known for observing scripture (cf.
Allusions and Manuscript Evidence
About 130 CE,
Papias, the bishop of
Hieropolis, claimed the "sayings (λόγια) of the Lord" were compiled by
Matthew in Hebrew and that his work was interpreted (i.e., translated
into Greek) by others. This brief reference led Matthew to be presented
first in NT texts and patristic
testimony from Irenaeus to
Tatian also used Matthew as
the basic skeleton for composing his gospel
harmony entitled Diatesseron ("According
to the Four").
The oldest known physical
evidence of any synoptic gospel is three tiny fragments of Matthew (P64
& P67) from a
written about 200 CE. Four
other 3rd c. manuscripts (P1,
present more extensive portions of Matthew's text.
The full text of Matthew, however, is preserved only
in parchment codices, like
after the council of Nicaea (325 CE).
Style and sources
The gospel of Matthew is written in literate koiné Greek like the
Septuagint translation of
Jewish scriptures used in synagogues of Hellenized Jews. Though few of
Matthew's biblical references echo Septuagint texts exactly, those that do
leave little doubt that this gospel and its sources were composed in Greek.
After tracing a pedigree through the Davidic kings of Judah to Joseph,
Matthew reports that Joseph discovered his fiancée, Mary, pregnant
before their marriage. Yet he did not disown her after being assured
that the Holy Spirit had conceived the child. Matthew cites this as
evidence that Jesus "fulfilled" a prediction of Isaiah that a "virgin"
would bear a son called "Immanuel" (Matt 1:23; cf. Isa 7:14). His
quotation echoes the Greek of the Septuagint exactly, except for the
form of the verb "call" (καλέσουσιν: 3rd person plural; the LXX has
καλέσεις: 2nd person singular). The original
Hebrew text of Isaiah, however, says only that the child's mother would
be a "maiden" (almah) not a "virgin" (bethulah). Since Matthew's
narrative presupposes fulfillment of the Greek translation of Jewish scripture rather than the
Hebrew text, the language in which it was originally composed was
probably Greek. After all, claims of virgin births were common in
Hellenic lore but unprecedented in Hebrew tradition.
God with us.
By translating the name given the child, Matthew shows this was his main
reason for citing Isa 7:14. Like many Jewish names, "Immanuel" is a brief
tribute to the supreme Hebrew deity, in this case invoking the
pre-Mosaic name for God, El.
Matt 1:23 renders the child's transcribed
Hebrew name literally in Greek: "with us the God" (μεθ̉ ἡμῶν ὁ
θεός). While this shows that the author probably understood Hebrew, it
also proves the audience to whom he was writing did not. Moreover, Matthew's
Greek here is an exact echo of the Septuagint's version of Isa 8:8,
which replaces the name "Immanuel" in the underlying Hebrew text
with its etymology in Greek! Thus, this passage in Matthew was clearly
composed in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic.
"It is written..."
Unlike Mark, Matthew provides his readers with a transcript of Jesus'
debate with the devil during his testing in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11;
cf. Mark 1:12f). Jesus responds to three challenges by
the tempter by quoting from the book of Deuteronomy. The first two
quotes (Matt 4:4 & 7=Deut 8:3 & 6:16) are verbatim from the
Septuagint, while the third (Matt 4:10=Deut 6:13) differs only in
substituting "prostrate" (προσκυνήσεις)
for "fear" (φοβηθήσῃ).
This discrepancy is easily explained as an echo of the tempter's use of
"prostrate" in his challenge to Jesus (Matt 4:9). Since
the Septuagint agrees with the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy here,
Matthew's variant does not show him translating freely from a Hebrew
Purpose of parables.
When the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables (Matt 13:10),
Matthew has him explain that the people do not understand & cites this as a
fulfillment of Isa 6:9-10. The extensive quotation of scripture in
13:14-15 (47 words in Greek) is identical with the Septuagint but not
the original Hebrew text.
While Matthew's other
quotations of scripture diverge from the Septuagint, they often differ from the text of the Hebrew Bible as well.
So they they do not support Greek patristic opinion that this gospel was originally written in Hebrew.
Though most elements in the
first two chapters of Matthew are unique to this author, his narrative
begins to parallel that of other gospels with the
appearance of John the
Baptist. The synoptic story line remains similar through the accounts
of Jesus' burial,
but Matthew's is distinct in presenting most of Jesus' teaching in five large
blocks of thematically focused speeches that freeze the action for chapters
at a time. While Mark and/or Luke present some of this sayings
material, Matthew's version is invariably longer and more rhetorically
Parallels to other sayings in Matthew's sermon are scattered in
Typical idioms and motifs
The Matthean version of
Jesus' sayings often displays rhetorical elements that differ from parallels
found in the other synoptic gospels. The question this poses is whether the
discrepancies come from Matthew's sources or from his editing.
Matthew is the only synoptic author to call the central motif of Jesus'
message "the kingdom of Heaven"
(ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν; lit.:
"kingdom of the heavens") -- thirty-two times, in fact (e.g.
25:1). Other gospels regularly
characterize the subject of such sayings as "the kingdom of God"
(ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ).
While Jews are known to use pious
circumlocutions to avoid profaning the divine name, the fact that
Matthew uses "God" (θέος) fifty times proves neither he nor his intended
readers were constrained by such scruples. He shows Jesus saying "God"
when quoting scripture (Matt 4:4ff,
22:29ff), arguing with opponents
22:21), teaching the crowd
30) or scolding disciples
(Matt 16:23). In four instances late in
his narrative he even quotes Jesus as referring to "the kingdom of
God" (Matt 12:28,
43). Such inconsistency is
often the result of editorial fatigue.
Jesus calls God "Father" (πάτηρ) more than twice as many times in
sayings reported by Matthew than the other synoptic gospels combined
(41x compared with Mark's 4x & Luke's 14x).
Matthew's version of such sayings is often made even more distinct by
the qualifying words "heavenly" (οὐράνιοs: 6x) or "who is in heaven" (ὁ
ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς:
12x). Each of these qualifiers is reported only once by another
synoptic author (Mark 11:25;
Luke 11:13), which raises the inevitable
question: who edited Jesus' words? Jews commonly called God "Our Father"
(Heb.: Abinu) and "Father who is in heaven" (Abuhon di
bishemmaya) in standard synogogue prayers like the
Amidah. So, did Matthew add such flourishes to sayings of Jesus
(e.g., Matt 5:16,
23:29) or did Mark
and Luke deliberately omit them?
Another favorite idiom of Matthew is an eschatological prediction of "weeping and
gnashing of teeth" when someone is cast into "outer darkness" (Matt
25:30) or "the fiery furnace" (Matt 13:42,
the Lukan version of the first of these sayings also links weeping to
gnashing teeth, the combination of this idiom with the other graphic
elements is unique to sayings in Matthew. In Hebrew scripture it
is one's snarling enemies who are depicted as gloating over one's
misfortune by gnashing their teeth (cf. Job 16:9, Ps 37:12, Lam 2:16).
But in Matthew, the roles are reversed, with gnashing linked to the
weeping of those who are condemned.
Any charge of hypocrisy in the NT was clearly composed in Greek.
"Hypocrisy" (ὑπόκρισις) is a classical Greek theatrical term for
performing on stage. The "hypocrite" (ὑπόκριτης) was an orator or actor
who played a scripted role, often behind a mask. So, to Hellenized Jews,
who had no native theatrical tradition, these Greek words carried
connotations of public false pretense. Matthew especially uses such
terms to characterize religious practices of other Jews (14x, compared
with just twice in Mark & once in Luke). At first Matthew leaves the accused anonymous (e.g., Matt 6:2,
16). But he concludes Jesus' public career
with a lengthy litany using the uniquely Matthean refrain: "Woe
to you, scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites!" (Matt 23:13,
29). While Luke reports similar "woes" and identifies hypocrisy as "the
leaven of the Pharisees" (Luke 12:1), he does not show Jesus openly
branding scribes and Pharisees as "hypocrites." And only once does Mark
have Jesus call them such, yet without formal condemnation (Mark 7:5-6).
So the prominence of this motif in Matthew's narrative suggests a
context of heightened social conflict relevant to this particular
Candid details and exclusive reports
Matthew also reports details not
echoed in parallel scenes in the other synoptic gospels, often with candid
clips of private conversations.
Why baptism? All
synoptics depict John the Baptist calling people to repent for sins.
Only Matthew, however, portrays John as objecting to baptizing Jesus,
proceeding only when Jesus tells him it is "to fulfill all
righteousness" (Matt 3:14f), a typically Matthean theme.
The synoptics agree that after Jesus was baptized a voice from heaven
declared him "my beloved son in whom I am well-pleased" (Matt 3:17).
They differ, however, in identifying the audience to which this
commendation was directed. Matthew introduces it with the demonstrative
pronoun οὗτος ("this") while the other synoptics use the personal
pronoun σύ ("thou"). This small grammatical difference has far-reaching
consequences for the gospel narratives. The 2nd person singular pronoun
makes acknowledgement of Jesus' divine sonship a private revelation
that is only later discerned by others over the course of his career.
Matthew's "This is...." on the other hand, makes it a
proclamation that publicizes Jesus' personal relationship to God before
his ministry even begins.
The synoptic accounts of the unveiling of Jesus' identity show how much
Matthew's version differs from the others. When Jesus asks his
disciples, "Who do you say I am?"
Mark (8:29) presents Peter replying
simply "You are the Anointed" (Greek: χριστός = Aramaic: Messiah),
while Luke (9:20) adds "of God." Only Matthew has Peter add "the son of the
living God" (16:16), which Jesus promptly proclaims a direct revelation
from his heavenly Father. The only time God is portrayed as declaring
Jesus his son to any disciple, however, is after Jesus was transfigured
(Matt 17:1 par), which Matthew, like the other synoptics, reports as
occurring about a week after Peter called Jesus the Messiah.
Therefore, the Matthean version of Peter's confession anticipates a
later event in the gospel narrative.
The synoptics all claim Jesus' reacted to Peter proclaiming him the
Messiah by commanding public secrecy (Mark 8:30 par). Matthew, however,
first depicts Jesus confirming Peter's confession with a formal
blessing, calling him the "Rock" (πέτρα)
foundation of his
"church" (ἐκκλησία) & offering him the "keys to the kingdom of heaven"
with authority to "bind & loose" (Matt
16:17ff). That Peter did play a leading role in the early church
after Jesus' crucifixion is well attested by Paul (Gal 2:8), who
usually calls him "Kephas" ("rock" in Aramaic; cf. Gal 1:18, 2:9ff;
1 Cor 1:12, 3:22, 9:5, 15:5). But his status before the crucifixion is less
firm. All gospels portray him as denying Jesus after his arrest (Matt
and two --including Matthew -- claim Jesus scolded him for rejecting his
forecast of his eventual fate (Matt
16:22). Matthew alone defangs that rebuke by having Jesus
first predict Peter's future preeminence along with a promise that
"the gates of Hell" would never prevail against him.
Crucifixion was a means of public execution regularly used
by the Roman army to dispose of dissidents, especially Jews (Josephus,
It is historically certain that Jesus was crucified. So, he was probably
executed for alleged sedition (cf. Matt 27:27ff,
37) on an order issued by
Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea.
Yet, all gospels portray Pilate as reluctant to execute Jesus,
blaming his order on pressure from Judean temple authorities. Matthew
even says Pilate's wife dreamt Jesus was innocent (Matt
27:19), which persuaded Pilate to wash his hands of the case (Matt
27:24), so the Jews took responsibility for Jesus'
execution (Matt 27:25).
The details reported only in Matthew are suspicious for many reasons,
including Matthew's own portrayal of a Jewish mob proclaiming Jesus the
Messiah only days before (Matt
All gospels claim Jesus' tomb was found empty (Matt
28:6 par). But Matthew alone presents a graphic description of
its opening. First he reports that Pilate ordered the tomb sealed and
placed under armed guard, lest someone steal the body (Matt
27:62ff). When women arrive to anoint the corpse, they find it still
sealed. But a sudden earthquake rolls away the stone & the sight of an
angel descending like lightning causes the Roman guards to faint (Matt
28:2ff). When the guards report this to the temple priests, Matthew
claims the latter bribed them to spread the false rumor that Jesus'
disciples came and stole the body (Matt
The fact that all of this is
found only in the Matthean narrative raises these questions:
Did the other synoptic authors know these details? If so, why did they not
Making sense of Matthew
From beginning to end Matthew reads like a rebuttal to arguments by Jewish opponents of the Jesus
movement. Starting with a genealogy through David's royal line and
repeatedly stressing details that fulfill "prophecy," the author tries to
prove Jesus was qualified to be the expected Messiah, while the ending shows his concern
to counter rumors "that have been spread among the Jews to this day" (Matt
28:15). Matthew's pervasive defensive tone & polemical elements make
his narrative more apologetic than "gospel."
Nowhere is this more evident
than in the sermon
that -- only in Matthew -- is delivered on "the mountain" (Matt
5:1ff). Matthew probably chose this setting for his
first extensive presentation of Jesus sayings since it suggests a parallel to
Moses delivering the Torah from Mount Sinai (Exod 19:20ff). Much of
the first part of this sermon focuses on showing Jesus'
ethical teaching to be even more stringent than Moses' commandments (see
comparisons are prefaced by a disclaimer that Jesus came not "to abolish the Law or the Prophets"
but to "to fulfill" (Matt 5:17).
From the perspective of narrative logic, the oddest thing about this
pronouncement is Matthew's presentation of it near the beginning of Jesus'
inaugural sermon, since before this point he repeatedly stressed that Jesus
fulfilled scripture and gave readers no reason to think otherwise. The only way
anyone might get the idea that Jesus meant to nullify the Torah would be
from someone other than Matthew.
In fact, Matthew presents
Jesus as proclaiming the Torah eternal (Matt
5:18). Thus, he labels anyone who
breaks the least of the Torah's commandments or teaches others to "least in the kingdom of heaven"
5:19). This pronouncement, reported only by Matthew, seems
designed to deter readers from heeding Paul who argued that those who
believe in Jesus are no longer subject to Torah discipline (Gal 2:15ff,
3:23ff). To dispel the idea that Jesus was lax in Torah observance, Matthew
has him demand a stricter standard of righteousness than even scribes and
Pharisees (Matt 5:20).
These were educated Jews who required observance of unwritten traditions and regulations
designed to insure Torah observance.
Matthew, again, is the only
gospel writer to present the Pharisaic quest for personal righteousness as a
standard of Jesus' teaching. He has Jesus bless those who "hunger" for
righteousness (Matt 5:6) or are persecuted for righteousness sake
5:10). But for him righteousness depends on a person's internal
motivation rather external displays of piety. Those who parade their piety
in public he labels "actors" (ὑπόκριταις;
cf. Matt 6:1ff,
6:15ff) and accuses
them of ignoring the "weightier matters" of the Torah (Matt
Yet he counsels his audience to practice whatever scribes and
Pharisees prescribe because they "sit on the seat of Moses" (Matt
23:2). That is to say, they act as the presiding interpreters of the Torah. This is a good indicator of
the circumstances under which Matthew was writing. For while the Pharisees
had a history of popular support among Jews, they gained sole control of
religious affairs only after 70
CE. As long as the temple
stood, the supreme Jewish religious authority was the Sanhedrin, which was
led by the chief priests, most of whom were Sadducees. After the temple's
destruction, however, leading Pharisees formed a
rabbinic academy that
assumed the Sanhedrin's authority to act as the supreme court (Heb.: Beth
Din) and arbiter of religious practice for Jews everywhere. Efforts of
these scholars to make their oral Torah normative for all synagogues around
the Mediterranean basin put them in conflict with early Christian
missionaries who had less restrictive standards.
Matthew contrasts the "easy
yoke" of Jesus' teaching (Matt
11:28ff) with the unbearable "heavy burdens" of Pharisaic religious
discipline (Matt 23:4f).
But, unlike the other synoptics, he distinguishes the Pharisees' principles
from their practice, telling readers to heed the former but avoid the latter
(Matt 23:3). This shows
his work was composed for an audience attending Hellenistic synagogues in
which rabbinic halakah was considered authoritative, yet an audience
which -- not unlike modern Hasidic Jews -- believed the one Rabbi whose
teaching they venerated was the
Messiah (ὁ Χρίστος;
While painting a scathing picture of Pharisaic behavior, Matthew stresses that
Jesus focused his mission on "the lost sheep" of Israel, expressly excluding
Gentiles and Samaritans (Matt
10:5f). He cites Gentiles as poor examples (Matt
6:32) and equates them
with unrepentant sinners--including tax-collectors!--who are to be socially
avoided (Matt 18:17). This
shows that the author was probably not the tax-collector that this
gospel alone calls "Matthew" (Matt
9:9), but more likely a scribe, perhaps even a Pharisee, who -- like Paul -- had come to accept Jesus as the Messiah (cf.
Matt 13:52). Yet, he rejects
Paul's contention that faith in Jesus meant freedom from the Torah. His
emphasis on Peter as founder of the "church" (Greek: ἐκκλησία) shows
he identified with those whose mission focused on "the circumcised" (cf. Gal
2:7ff). All this suggests that Matthew
addressed Hellenized Jewish Christians caught between parties with
conflicting social agendas. He counters, on the one hand, claims that Jesus
did not uphold Torah but rejects, on the other, Puritanical rules designed
to weed out sinners.
Matthew, more than other
synoptics, focuses on the day of judgment -- a final reckoning when the
righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished -- a basic tenet of Pharisaic
Talmud, Rosh haShanah 16b). But he stresses that the time
of separation is not yet (Matt 13:24ff,
13:36ff). In Matthew, authority to "bind and loose"-- i.e., to judge strictly or
leniently-- is given not just to Peter (Matt
16:19) but to everyone (Matt
18:18). Yet he warns that those who judge harshly will be judged by
the way they treat others (Matt
25:31ff). So it is
better to forgive (Matt
18:15ff, 21ff). For one
cannot expect God to forgive those who fail to forgive others (Matt
6:14f). Thus, according to Matthew, Jesus cited the golden rule as
the underlying principle of the whole Torah (Matt
7:12), much as
Hillel had a generation earlier (cf.
Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a).
Matthew claims Jesus threatened Pharisees
with divine judgment, however, for using their authority to persecute, scourge, and even "crucify" anyone promoting the message of Jesus
34). This last
charge is good evidence that Matthew was composed well after 70
never actually crucified anyone themselves, since in the 1st c. crucifixion was a form of public execution
used exclusively by Romans. The only known crucifixion of any partisan
of Jesus before the Jewish war was when the emperor Nero executed Christians for the
fire that devastated Rome in 65 CE
15.44). But that persecution was short-lived and local in scope, and was
not instigated by Pharisees. Before this,
individual zealous Pharisees like Paul may have taken it upon themselves
to try to "destroy" the Jesus movement (cf. Acts 9:1ff, Gal 1:13). But such
efforts did not lead to crucifixions. Paul, an admitted Pharisee, claims to
have been beaten several times and even stoned by 'the Jews" after he became
a Christian missionary (2 Co 11:23f); but he never blames such incidents on
Only after the end of the
Jewish war with Rome, as the rabbinic academy gradually gained authority
over synagogues across the Mediterranean, did Pharisees take the lead in
trying to suppress supporters of Jesus. The new Flavian emperor,
a Pharisaic priest,
Josephus, to convince Jews of the futility of further rebellion. As
part of his pacification strategy, the emperor allowed rabbis under the
leadership of Johanan ben Zakkai, a disciple of the peace Pharisee Hillel,
to form an academy to train Jews in religious law. But the rabbis' license
to spread their teaching depended on keeping synagogues free from public
unrest. Open dissent was discouraged. Jews who were viewed as
trouble-makers were expelled from synagogues where rabbinic halakah
became the norm. Excommunicated Jews -- political zealot and charismatic
Christian alike -- no longer associated with a licit religious
organization, were considered outlaws by imperial authorities and,
therefore, subject to arrest, imprisonment and public execution, even
crucifixion, to dissuade others from following their example (Matt 10:17ff). It is only
under this set of circumstances that the crucifixion of Christians might be
blamed on Pharisees.
Matthew's version of the
complex of eschatological warnings that scholars call the "little
apocalypse" is further evidence that he wrote well after 70
CE. Like the other synoptics,
he presents these sayings following a prediction of the destruction of the
temple in Jerusalem (Matt
24:1f). But while each gospel prefaces these warnings with the disciples' question of when that
event will occur, Matthew's version shifts the focus to signs of the end time and Jesus'
24:3). This is a clear leap in narrative logic. As an
omniscient author, Matthew already knew that Jesus' reply to his disciples
-- in all synoptic versions -- does, in fact, predict times of cosmic
turmoil and the climactic appearance of the "Son of man" (Matt
24:29) following the desecration of the temple (Matt
24:15). So he tailors the disciples' question to fit the subsequent
response. And this, in turn, permits him to include in his version of Jesus'
speech more sayings on the eschaton and the parousia of the Son of Man than the other synoptics (cf.
Matt 24:27ff). So,
for Matthew the fall of the temple is a precursor but not itself the
definitive event signaling the end time.
Even more significant for the
editorial history of the little apocalypse, however, is the way Matthew
presents its conclusion. Both Mark and Luke end Jesus' speech with a warning
to stay alert, since the time is near (cf.
While Matthew, like the other synoptics, presents Jesus' promise that the
predicted events would occur within the lifetime of his own audience (Matt
24:34), his presentation of these warnings concludes with parables about
a delay in the expected arrival of an absent lord (Matt
. So rather than focus on the imminence of the end time, Matthew's version of
the little apocalypse stresses how not to act in a prolonged waiting
A Wider Audience
Although Matthew insists that
Jesus focused his mission on Israel, he intersperses his account with
incidents that suggest a more favorable reception by non-Jews. Magi
-- Zoroastrian priests from Parthia -- come to worship (προσκυνῆσαι) Jesus
at birth (Matt 2:2),
while Herod, the jealous "king of the Jews," tries to destroy him (Matt
2:13). At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus is begged by a
Roman centurion to heal his servant by just saying the word, leading Jesus
to exclaim he had not found such faith in Israel (Matt
8:5ff). Then he goes on to predict that many foreigners would feast with
the patriarchs, while the "sons of the kingdom" would be cast out (Matt
8:11ff). Matthew develops that theme of eviction in graphic form
when Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard to warn priests at Jerusalem
that "God's kingdom" would be taken from them and given to a nation that will
"produce fruit" (Matt
The Matthean version of Jesus' parable of the feast (Matt
22:1ff) paints an even clearer picture of a new audience. When the
guests invited to the wedding of the king's son not only refuse to come but
murder his servants, the king sends troops to burn their city and recruits
passers-by so the celebration can proceed with outsiders filling in for
those first invited. The surrealistic details that disrupt this plot --
banquet guests murdering royal messengers and the destruction of their city
-- are transparent allusions to crises endured by the Jewish
Christian community in the decade surrounding the Jewish war with Rome. In
62 CE the Jewish high priest,
Hanan II, had the leaders of the church in Jerusalem -- including Jesus' brother James -- stoned for
alleged Torah violations (Josephus,
Antiquities 20.199f). This led early Christians to view the Roman siege
of Jerusalem and the burning of its temple (70
CE) as God's retribution for
the murder of his messengers (cf.
Church History 3.5.2f). Whether a remnant of the Jewish church at
Jerusalem escaped -- as claimed by Eusebius -- or not, this series of
disasters, coupled with suppression in synagogues (Matt
10:17ff), is certain to have caused many Jewish Christians to abandon
their mission to "the circumcised" and even led some of the more Hellenized
-- like the author of this gospel -- to endorse a mission to non-Jews.
To charter this wider
mission, Matthew concludes his gospel by portraying the resurrected Jesus
commanding his followers to "make disciples of all nations" by
"teaching them to obey everything I commanded you" (Matt
28:19f). While such a mission parallels in scope that launched in
the 40s by the
Hellenized Pharisee Paul, it diverges sharply in message. For
Paul stressed faith in a crucified and risen Lord (cf. Rom 10:9f, 1Cor
15:3f, Gal 2:15f) but Matthew makes obedience to the teaching of the
pre-crucified Jesus the criterion of discipleship (cf. also
Matt 7:24ff). Since
Matthew presents Jesus' teaching as continuous with both Torah and prophets,
he alone among the synoptists credits Jesus with founding a
church based upon both an old and a new "testament."
Yet, it is a church with a completely new
ritual and theology. For Matthew claims the risen Christ commanded his
followers to baptize converts -- something Jesus himself never did --
"in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matt
28:19). Years before the gospels were composed Paul referred to
Christians -- Jew and Gentile alike -- being baptized "into Christ"
(Gal 3:27, 1 Cor 13:27). But Matthew's use of a threefold divine name is the
first and only time that this formula -- which came to play a central role
in the development of orthodox Christian theology -- is mentioned in
Finally, Matthew -- which
begins by introducing Jesus as "God with us" (Matt
1:23) -- ends with the resurrected Christ's promise: "I am with you
always, to the end of the age" (Matt
28:20). As comforting as such words are, they present an odd conclusion
for Matthew, who presents several predictions about a future
appearance (παρουσία) of the "Son of Man"
30). For he never reports Jesus' disappearance, let alone an ascension
to heaven. Considering Matthew's insistence that Jesus is the Messiah
predicted by scripture, however, his declaration of his perpetual presence
is understandable. While Jewish scripture has several texts that envision
the Messiah's coming, there are none that forecast his departure.
Rather, the Messiah's dominion is described as universal and everlasting
(e.g., Dan 7:14,
Zech 9:9; Ps 89:36f, 110:1-4). So, if Jesus is indeed the predicted
Messiah, as Matthew insists, then he must remain forever.
But how and where? Matthew
reports only two appearances of the resurrected Jesus. The first is at
Jerusalem when two women touch him en route to telling his disciples
that they will see him in Galilee (Matt
28:9). The second is on a Galilean mountain where he directs his
disciples to extend their mission beyond Israel (Matt
28:16). Matthew gives no hint of another appearance till the
eschatological parousia of the Son of Man (cf.
In a uniquely Matthean
depiction of the last judgment, however, the enthroned Son of Man is shown
judging people on the basis of how they treated him (Matt
25:31ff). When those rewarded or condemned ask him, "When did we see
you...," they are told: "As you did (or did not) to the least of my
brethren, so you did (or did not) to me." As the Son of Man (ὑιὸς τοῦ
ἀνθρώπου, lit: "son of the human"), Matthew shows Jesus expressly
identifying himself with other humans, especially "the least," and children
in particular (Matt 18:5).
Moreover, he assures his disciples that where even as few as two or three
gather in his name, he is among them (Matt
18:19f). So, for Matthew, Jesus' birth began the messianic era; and as
the messianic Son of Man he remains present -- even after his crucifixion --
in other humans, especially the community of those gathered in his name: the
11 November 2020