Κατα Mαθθαιον    According to Matthew  

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  detail of top of Oxyrhynchus papyrus 1 (P1) verso containing Matt 1:1-3
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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:




2:1-6 birth in Bethlehem Micah 5:2
2:2-9 a new star rises Num 24:17
2:11-12 foreigners present gold & frankincense Isa 60:6
2:13-15 sojourn in Egypt Hos 11:1
2:16-18 death of children Jer 31:15

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. Matt 11:19).

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 Augustine. 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 papyrus codex written about 200 CE. Four other 3rd  c.  manuscripts (P1, P37, P45, & P70) present more extensive portions of Matthew's text.

The full text of Matthew, however, is preserved only in parchment codices, like Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, produced 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.

  • Virgin birth. 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" (παρθένος) 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 source.

  • 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 Matt 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.

Constructed speeches

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 integrated.

* Parallels to other sayings in Matthew's sermon are scattered in Luke 11, 13, & 16.

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.

  • Kingdom sayings. 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. Matt 4:17, 5:3ff, 5:19f, 13:24ff, 18:1ff, 19:12ff, 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 (Matt 12:28, 15:3ff, 19:6, 22:21), teaching the crowd (Matt 5:8f, 6:24, 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, 19:24, 21:31 & 43).  Such inconsistency is often the result of editorial fatigue.

  • Father sayings. 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 Qaddish and the Amidah. So, did Matthew add such flourishes to sayings of Jesus (e.g., Matt 5:16, 5:45, 6:1, 6:9, 7:11, 7:21, 10:32f, 12:50, 16:17, 18:10, 18:14, 18:19, 23:29) or did Mark and Luke deliberately omit them?

  • Hypocrisy charge. 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, 5, 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, 15, 23, 25, 27, 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 gospel's composition.

  • Gnashing teeth. Another favorite idiom of Matthew is an eschatological prediction of "weeping and gnashing of teeth" when someone is cast into "outer darkness" (Matt 8:12, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30) or "the fiery furnace" (Matt 13:42, 50).  Though 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.

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.

  • Public proclamation. 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.

  • Petrine confession. 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.

  • Peter's role.  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 26:33, 69ff) 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.

  • Pilate's role. Crucifixion was a means of public execution regularly used by the Roman army to dispose of dissidents, especially Jews (Josephus, Antiquities 17.295, 20.102; War 5.449ff). 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 21:9).

  • Empty tomb. 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 28:11ff).

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 report them?

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 Matt 5:21ff, 27ff, 33ff, 38ff, 43ff). These 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" (Matt 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 (Matt 5:10). But for him righteousness depends on a person's internal motivation rather than external displays of piety. Those who parade their piety in public he labels "actors" (ὑπόκριταις; cf. Matt 6:1ff, 6:5ff, 6:15ff) and accuses them of ignoring the "weightier matters" of the Torah (Matt 23:23ff).

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; Matt 23:8ff).

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 5:47, 6:7, 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.

Delaying judgment

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 doctrine  (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 18:14; Babylonian 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 7:1f, 18:23ff, 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 (Matt 23:13f & 34). This last charge is good evidence that Matthew was composed well after 70 CE. Pharisees 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 (Tacitus, Annals 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 Pharisees.

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, Vespasian, enlisted 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.

Delayed Parousia

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' parousia (Matt 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. Mark 13:34ff, Luke 21:34ff).  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 24:45ff, 25:1ff) . 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 period.

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 21:33ff, 43).

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. Eusebius, 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 Christian scripture.

Perpetual Presence

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" (Matt 13:36ff, 16:27f, 24:27, 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. Matt 24:29ff).

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 Christian church.

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last revised 28 February 2023

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