Making the most of Matthew

A series of articles to introduce the gospel of Matthew, the major gospel at the Eucharist for the liturgical year 2000-2001.

Part 1 - Matthew and his methods

How and why?

If you look with care at the accounts of the ministry of Jesus in the first three gospels you can see that they consist of a series of "units" - stories, events sayings, healings etc, which could be put together in almost any order and still make sense; the chronological order is largely artificial. This is confirmed by the fact that the written gospels do use the same material in different orders. Luke has Jesus visit the synagogue at Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry, in Mark and Matthew part the way through (Lk. 4:16ff; Mk. 6:1ff; Matt. 13:53ff) - much of the material we think of as the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5,6,7) is scattered in Luke's gospel, much of it in a sermon on the plain (Lk. 6:17ff). Space precludes further examples but you can see these for yourselves. The conclusion we may draw from this is that each unit has a life of its own within the life of the Church, being shaped by that life, so that the sort of things Jesus said and did were important rather than an exact chronology of his life and work. Some stories have developed like snowballs, becoming more elaborate; others like pebbles with details smoothed away.

We believe that Mark "invented" the written gospel, although we cannot be sure whether his source material was still largely oral or already partly written. By Mark's period (35-40 years after Jesus) one generation of Christians was mostly dead, a second finishing and a third emerging. Jesus' promise of the Kingdom and his return in judgement was delayed. One element in writing a fully written gospel was a certain failure of nerve; a need for a more permanent shape to the "Jesus material" in a more permanent -looking Church.

Who and why?

Matthew was almost certainly a Jew, he was also a Christian. He was thoroughly at home in Greek - there are no indications of the gospel being written in any other language - but his use of quotations from the Old Testament and other matters of style indicate that he knew Hebrew equally well and possibly Aramaic as well. In fact, Matthew's gospel is the most "full blooded" expression of Jewish Christianity in the New Testament. Matthew is not a Jewish Christian like Paul. Matthew believes in a Gentile mission but for him this means bringing the Gentiles into a fully observant Jewish community, which saw in Jesus the fulfilment of Israel. So Matthew's Jesus endorses the Torah* as binding on all Christians (Matt. 5:17-21) and radicalises its application. On the other hand the gospel contains some fierce anti-Jewish polemic, especially Matt. 27:25, which has bedevilled Jewish Christian relations for centuries. Can we explain this paradox?

* The "Torah" is the first five Biblical books (Genesis to Deuteronomy) which were binding on all Jews. The conventional English translation "Law" is misleading, if only because most of this material is narrative; "instruction" or "teaching" makes better sense.

Where and When?

The traditional notion of Antioch in Syria (the third largest city of the Empire) as the place of the gospel's composition is a good educated guess. Its large Jewish population was enlarged further following the Jewish revolt and it was a prominent Christian centre. Matthew's educated sophistication, his relative ease with wealth and its dangers, and wide knowledge of different kinds of money, all point to a prosperous urban setting. A large gospel also needs wealthy sponsors.

Matthew incorporates about 90% of Mark's gospel so it must have been written not only after Mark, but sufficiently after for Mark to have become established. This points to a date between 70 and 100 with 80-85 as most likely.

Part 2 - Themes and patterns in Matthew

Matthew the Scribe

The Jewish revolt and the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, with the consequent destruction of the Temple, were traumatic events for both Judaism and the Christian movement. Judaism had to try to survive without the centrality of temple worship. For the Christians the fall of the temple was a sign of God's final judgement against the Jews who had rejected Jesus; but nonetheless he did not return in triumph. Such periods of crisis and self definition are rarely times of reason and charity.

Matthew and his community appear, on the one hand, to have been rejected by their fellow Jews - he often talks of "their synagogues" - on the other hand, the emerging Christianity seemed more loose, more clearly gentile. Matthew's Jewish Christian "third way" seemed squeezed and torn which helps explain the contrast I touched on above: apologetic of rigorously Jewish Christianity with fierce anti-Jewish polemic.

Most scholars see the portrait of the scribe (13:52) as a self portrait. Matthew the Christian scribe, who may have trained as a Jewish scribe, husbands his various resources - a version of Mark's gospel, a collection of Jesus' sayings some known also to Luke, other "Jesus material" known to him, and his knowledge of Hebrew scripture and other writings - and on these plays his own reflective theological imagination and experience. The gospel is the result.

Like all the gospels it is an anonymous production, the attributions to Matthew, Mark etc. came in the second century. In this article "Matthew" means the person who wrote the gospel known by this name.

Matthew and the Old Testament

For all New Testament writers the scripture, their Bible, was roughly what Christians call the Old Testament; usually in a Greek translation. Uniquely in the New Testament Matthew seems to have the Hebrew text in mind when he quotes or alludes to the scriptures on his own account; but he sticks to the standard Greek version when he uses Old Testament material in common with Mark. This includes Matthew's almost unique use of "formula citations" where he specifically points out a prophetic fulfilment. Where he goes his own way he will usually use a mixed version which may include his own translation of some Old Testament material to best fit his argument. All this is the scribe's mixture of the new and the old to present Jesus as one attested by scripture to believers and opponents .

Matthew's Structure

That Matthew's gospel has a structure is clear. What is less clear is whether, or if, there is one purpose behind it. The teaching of Jesus in the gospel is divided into five blocks with related narrative around them. Like other Jewish writing (e.g. the five books of Psalms) this may reflect the five books of the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy). But there are other structures such as a liking for groups of three.

Righteousness in Matthew

Righteousness is knowing God's will and doing it. Joseph in the birth stories exemplifies the righteousness of the Torah, Jesus proclaims the new righteousness in the sermon on the Mount (Chaps 5,6 and 7), acts it (chaps 8-9), encourages his disciples to follow it by following him (chap 10), reacts to its reception (chaps 11,12), teaches in parables touching on its rejection (chap 13), founds the church by deed and word (chaps 14-17) and teaches on it (chap 18) and on the Christian household (chaps 19-20), offers the new righteousness to Jerusalem in deed and word (chap 21) and is rejected with "hypocrisy" - the opposite of righteousness which he condemns (chaps 21-23) and moves on to the awful consequences of acceptance and rejection of the new righteousness (chap 24). Jesus is the new righteousness - Torah incarnate - but he does not contradict the old but fulfils and extends it.


The emphasis on righteousness in Matthew leads to a corresponding emphasis on judgement; slightly under half his material concerns warnings about our ultimate fate. This theme is not currently popular but without it we preach and profess a crippled gospel.

God as father

In Matthew God is called "father" forty five times (cf. four in Mark and seventeen in Luke); only John uses "father" more often but with a different meaning. Moreover Matthew's use of "heavenly father" or "father in heaven" is nearly unique in the whole Bible. However, in this world the devil also has children (13:38).

Peter and the Disciples

In hearing or reading any portion of the gospels look out for the disciples; they are us. The disciples are a means for Christians of any time to be Jesus' contemporaries, to be under his authority and commission (see especially chap 10), to be either in his situation of itinerant poverty or to welcome those who are (10:40-42). Behaviour rather than content of message is important; the disciple's life conforms to Christ's (10:24-25). Disciples are students, capable of understanding (16:12 and 17:23) needing instruction because understanding means bearing fruit (13:23) i.e. perseverance in practice, with patience. There is always the possibility of discouragement, disciples are "of little faith" (8:26, 14:31, 16:8, 7:20).

Peter has a unique place with three stories which only appear in this gospel; his blessing (16:17-19), walking on the sea (14:18-31), and the temple tax (17:24-27). His strengths and weaknesses make him unique and typical; we can contrast his repentance with Judas' despair (27:3-10) which appears only in Matthew

We should note that although the disciples are sent out in Chapter 10, they neither go nor come back. The disciple is always sent out by an ever present Lord; to be a Christian is to be centred on Jesus and it is to Matthew's picture of Jesus we shall turn next.

3. Matthew's portrait of Jesus

Ancient books have no title page or contents pages. Matthew's opening words make his purpose clear (1:1). This is the book of the genesis (or new creation) of Jesus Christ (or Messiah), son of David and son of Abraham.

Jesus Christ

Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew "Messiah" - the anointed one. Since this would not mean much to the Gentile Christians it became a kind of surname for Jesus. Matthew, of course, understands its original meaning.

Jesus son of David

Son of David was a standard title of the Messiah but Mathew lays special emphasis on Jesus' descent from David - Joseph's adoption of Jesus is crucial (1:16 and 18ff). David's son Solomon was renowned in Jewish tradition as a great healer and exorcist. In the body of the gospel Son of David is often used by those seeking healing (9:27, 12:23,15,22, 20:30,31, 21:9 and 15) and never by Jesus' opponents, but is a cause of division (22:41-46). The Son of David is a king concerned with the material welfare of his people.

Jesus son of Abraham

Jesus, as descendant of Abraham, is not only a true Israelite but also the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham that through him all nations should be blessed.(8:11-12) see also Gal.3:16 and Romans 4.

Jesus, son of God

The title, confirmed by Hosea (2:15 quoting Hosea 11:1) and the voice from Heaven (3:17) can be used by enemies. The bystanders at the cross (27:40-43) echo the devil (4:3-6); the underlying text here is Wisdom 2:12-20.

Jesus the new Moses

This is a major theme of this gospel. Matthew's use of "genesis" as part of his title points to a connection with Moses the supposed writer of the book of Genesis. Like Moses, Jesus is saved from a wicked king while still an infant, like Moses he moves between Egypt and Israel; and non-Biblical Jewish tradition has many other parallels. After going through the waters and the wilderness Jesus goes up a mountain and speaks the Law. Like Moses (Ex. 33:12ff) Jesus (11:27) is the perfect wise man who knows and reveals God. In the transfiguration (17:1-8) Jesus is the promised prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15 and 18). So the revelation through Jesus is like, and does not contradict the revelation through Moses but is greater as Jesus - the messiah and the Son of God - is greater than Moses.

Jesus the new Israel

Intertwined with the new Moses is Jesus the personification of Israel. He is taken to Egypt at the promptings of a dreamer called Joseph, like Israel in Genesis. He too has his Exodus and passes through the waters. However, whereas Israel tempted God in the wilderness with their hunger, lack of obedience and idolatry, Jesus, when faced with the same temptations refutes evil with recollections of Israel's desert experience (see Deut. 8:2). The implication is that Jesus and his followers are the true Israel.

Jesus the Teacher

In Matthew's gospel Jesus is often depicted as a teacher and he uses it as a self designation (26:18, 23:8) but only outsiders such as his opponents (chap 22) and Judas(26:49) call him "Teacher". Jesus' teaching is to prepare those who will listen and follow for what is to come - both as a comfort and warning (13:41-3, 16:27-8, 19:18-9, much of chapters 24 and 25).

Jesus Emmanuel

Jesus is God present in the community as testified by Isaiah (1:22-23) (also 17:17, 18:20, 26:29). This is something that cannot be understood but experienced and testified to, hence the gospel. For Luke the age of Jesus is essentially over, he reigns over his church from Heaven, through the Holy Spirit. But for Matthew God acts through the man Jesus, now; the earthly and heavenly are one (28:20), the history of Jesus and the Church intermingle. What happened to him happens to us; what he says, he says to us; whatever he gives, he gives to us.

Jesus Pantokrator

From the apse of many Byzantine churches the enormous figure of Jesus the Pantokrator (ruler of all things) looks coldly down; impassive, detached and quizzical, one hand raised in blessing, one clutching the book of life. It is not a bad symbol of Jesus in Matthew's gospel, the giver of a demanding new law; the God among us who teaches largely by forewarning; the Son of God who controls all things (28:18).

Matthew's picture of Jesus may never be as popular as Luke's more "humanistic" Jesus but does appeal to those who experience Christianity as a challenge, a daily confrontation with an implacable God.

Clarence Rickards
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 3rd March 2002