The Gospel according to St Matthew

Matthew is the first of the four gospels of the Bible. At least from the time of Irenaeus, Matthew was for seventeen centuries regarded as the first Gospel. It outweighed the other Gospels in the readings assigned for Sundays and holy days of the church year. However about 90% of Matthew is taken from Mark, and there are also references to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, so it is believed to have been written towards the end of the first century. The actual Gospel is anonymous and is believed it was given the name of Matthew by the church.

In the Gospel, Matthew is a tax collector called by Jesus (9:9, 10:3) - this is the only Gospel that identifies him as a tax collector. People often take the view that the Gospel was not written by the apostle Matthew, because a lot of it is based on Mark and an apostle would not need to depend upon the writing of one who was not an apostle. Because Matthew uses so much of Mark, it is thought that the Gospel was written at Antioch (as Mark was). The Gospel follows the outline of Mark quite closely, expanding it at each end with the infancy narratives (Ch 1-2) and the resurrection narratives (Ch 28) and with considerable blocks of teaching.

Five discourses

Matthew tidies up Mark. He improves the roughness of Mark’s Greek style and also combines the miracles of Mark 2:1 - 3:6 and 4:35 - 5:43 into a single block in chapters 8-9. Matthew arranges Jesus’ teaching into five discourses. Because it is arranged in five parts, it is sometimes argued that Matthew is imitating in the New Testament the structure of the five books of the law (The Pentateuch: Genesis to Deuteronomy). The discourses conclude with a similar formula, e.g. 7:28 "And when Jesus finished these sayings the crowds were astonished at his teaching" (compare with 11:1, 13:53, 19:1 and 26:1). The 5 discourses are as follows:

First discourse Chapters 5 to 7 The Sermon on the Mount, the new law
Second discourse Chapter 10 The missionary charge (expanded version of Mark 6)
Third discourse Chapter 13 Parables of the Kingdom
Fourth discourse Chapter 18 Church discipline
Fifth discourse Chapters 23 to 25 Eschatological discourse in chapter 23 (narrative dealing with the final destiny of both the individual soul and mankind in general), an adaptation of Mark's "little Apocalypse" in chapter 24, and apocalyptic parables in chapter 25

Distinctive features of Matthew’s Gospel

Links to the Old Testament

Matthew makes opportunities to reinforce the ideas of the prophecies being fulfilled in the story of Jesus. There are lots of quotations from the Old Testament and they occur after narration of an incident in Jesus’ life and are introduced with, "This was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by…" There are twelve of these quotations:

1:22ff Virginal conception Isaiah 7:14
2:5ff Birth at Bethlehem Micah 5:1,3
2:17ff Massacre of the Innocents Jeremiah 31:15
2:23 "He shall be called a Nazarene" Impossible to identify with certainty
4:14ff Galilean ministry Isaiah 8:23 - 9:1
8:17 Jesus' healing ministry Isaiah 53:4
12:17ff Re-interpretation of the Messianic secret
as fulfilment of the servant prophecy
Isaiah 42:14
13:14 Parabolic teaching Isaiah 6:9
21:4ff Triumphal entry Zechariah 9:9 and Psalm 78:2
26:56 Arrest - fulfilment of the Prophets (from Mark)
27:9ff Thirty pieces of silver Zechariah 11:12ff

Peter is very prominent in this Gospel. Matthew recounts the confession of Jesus’ Messiah-ship by Peter at Caesarea Philippi (Matt. 16:13-20) and makes much more of the incident by adding a passage unique to Matthew about Peter and the church.

The Church

The Gospel is written in the context of a church community for whose needs he is catering - you get the sense that Matthew is trying to offer answers to community problems within the church. Matthew uses the parable of the Lost Sheep in a different way. In Luke it is illustrating Jesus’ attitude to sinners whereas in Matthew it is dealing with the brother who has lapsed from the community or who is in danger of doing so. It seems that the Sermon on the Mount is written to instruct the church on various issues, telling them what to do if one member of the congregation wrongs another etc. In 18:17 Jesus is teaching the disciples about discipline within the church.

Jesus according to Matthew

In Matthew Jesus is seen as the new Moses who gives the Torah - the perfect law. Most of Jesus’ teachings are gathered together in the Sermon on the Mount teachings. As Moses received the law on Mount Sinai, so Jesus delivers his perfect law on a Mount.

Matthew is described as the Gospel which has the strongest Jewish flavour - he uses Jewish phrases such as the Kingdom of Heaven etc. He shows how Jesus is the Jewish Messiah because he fulfils the Jewish scriptures. The tone of the Gospel is Judaistic and at times anti-Gentile - see 10:5, 7:6 and 15:26 where the disciples are told not to go to the Gentiles. However, in the end Matthew is a Gospel of all because he does end on a strong universalistic note - "Make all the Nations my Disciples" (28:18-20)

Cathryn Riley
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 31st January 1998