Matthew Introduction

Matthew the teacher

Matthew has been called ‘the Teacher’s Gospel’ because its material is so presented that it is very suitable for use in teaching. It was probably for this reason that this gospel was the most widely used of the four in the early church. While Mark offers a vivid, flowing narrative, Luke a sensitive study of Jesus’ dealings with people, and John a more explicitly theological portrait of Jesus, Matthew collected stories and sayings of Jesus which bear particularly on the regular concerns of the life of the church and put them together in such a way that a teacher in the church could draw on them. Very probably Matthew was himself such a teacher and included in his gospel the material which he was already used to presenting to his own church members.

Most obvious are the five great ‘discourses’, or collections of Jesus’ teaching, which are all concluded with the formula ‘When Jesus had finished these sayings’ or the like (a formula which is much more striking in Greek than in our English versions). These discourses comprise chs. 5–7, 10, 13, 18 and 24–25. Each appears to be based on a much shorter ‘address’ in one of the other synoptic gospels (Mark and Luke), and each has a clear unity of theme running through it. Many of the sayings so collected occur elsewhere in the other synoptic gospels, so that Matthew seems to have made five careful ‘anthologies’ of the teaching of Jesus on certain subjects.

Both within these discourses and in the rest of the gospel Matthew likes to give clearly structured divisions of material, which are therefore relatively easy to memorize. Obvious examples are the three balancing sections of the genealogy (1:1–17; note the summary in v 17), the eight beatitudes (5:3–10; note the same conclusion to the first and last), the six ‘antitheses’ (5:21–48; note the recurring introductory formula), the three types of religious observance (6:1–18; with almost identical structure, apart from the expansion of the section on prayer) and the seven woes on the teachers of the law and Pharisees (23:13–36). Longer sections are also sometimes compiled with a balanced structure, notably the collection of miracles in chs. 8–9 and the parable discourse in ch. 13.

Compared with Mark’s lively narrative style, Matthew’s telling of the stories of Jesus can appear quite dull. While his gospel contains much more material than Mark’s, where they tell the same story, Matthew is typically much more concise. For example, the stories which make up ch. 5 of Mark (43 verses) take up only 16 verses in Matthew. He has omitted all the vivid narrative detail and cut out any ‘redundancy’ in the telling, so as to focus on the main point. But where the point of a story lies in the sayings of Jesus which it includes, he is as likely, while reducing the narrative, to offer the sayings in a fuller form (cf. Mt. 8:5–13 with Lk. 7:1–10).

In such ways, Matthew has shaped his material to make it more suitable for teaching in the church. It still serves that function admirably, as many a pastor can testify.

Matthew’s special interests

Jesus the Messiah

Matthew writes as a Jew who has found in Jesus the fulfilment of all that is precious in his Jewish heritage. ‘Fulfilment’ is a central theme of the gospel.

It comes to the surface most obviously in the repeated assertion that ‘All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet’ (1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9); the wording varies slightly, but these ‘formula-quotations’, as they have come to be called, are a distinctive feature of Matthew’s gospel. Other similar quotations, without using the same formula, reinforce the argument that even in the details of Jesus’ life there is a pattern foreshadowed in Scripture which is finding its proper outworking. The OT passages are often not the obvious ‘Messianic’ texts, but quite obscure verses, some of them not on the face of it intended as predictions at all. But Matthew delights to search out patterns of God’s work in the OT and to trace them to their ‘fulfilment’ in Jesus.

The first two chapters of the gospel (in which an unusually large concentration of formula-quotations occurs) are devoted primarily to setting out the scriptural grounds for seeing Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. His mission was to fulfil the law and the prophets (5:17), and the rest of ch. 5 explores what that fulfilment means. A series of references to Jesus’ ministry as ‘greater than’ key figures and institutions of the OT in ch. 12 (vs 6, 41, 42) develops an argument for his fulfilment not only of specific prophecies but of the essential dynamics of OT life and religion. In these and other ways Matthew ‘claims’ the whole OT revelation as the basis of the mission of Jesus.

Israel and the church

Matthew’s gospel is rightly seen as one of the most Jewish books of the NT, with its focus on OT fulfilment, its frequent reference to matters of rabbinic debate, its assumption that its readers know about matters of Jewish ritual, and its use of Jewish terminology (‘kingdom of heaven’, ‘Son of David’) and occasional untranslated Aramaic words. It is only in Matthew’s gospel that the mission of Jesus and his disciples is limited to ‘the lost sheep of Israel’ (10:6; 15:24), and that the authority of Jewish teachers of the law is apparently taken seriously (23:3, 23).

Yet this same gospel is also seen by many as violently anti-Jewish. It denounces the Jewish leaders (especially the Pharisees) as hypocrites and blind guides and threatens that ‘the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit’ (21:43). It envisages non-Jews brought in from east and west to the Jewish Messianic banquet, while the (Jewish) ‘subjects of the kingdom’ are thrown out (8:11–12; cf. 22:1–10). In it Jesus declares that the rebellion of God’s people has reached the point where judgment must fall on ‘this generation’; in particular, the temple in Jerusalem, the symbol of God’s presence among his people, is to be destroyed so that not one stone will be left on another. It is only Matthew who records the terrible cry of ‘all the people’ in 27:25: ‘His blood on us and on our children’. Some commentators have gone so far as to suggest that Matthew had given up hope of any further response from Israel, and was urging his readers to concentrate their mission on the other nations.

It is certainly true that this most Jewish gospel contains also a sustained expectation that Gentiles would henceforth be included in the true people of God. The foreign Magi of 2:1–12 give more than a hint of this, and as Jesus meets with Gentiles in the course of the story (8:5–13; 15:21–28), the wide extent of his mission becomes increasingly clear. It is, therefore, no surprise when the book concludes with the risen Jesus sending his disciples out to make disciples of all nations.

Matthew’s ‘love-hate relationship’ with Israel is the wholly natural attitude of a faithful Jew who had found in Jesus the fulfilment of his national ideals, and yet who found the majority of his own people refusing to recognize that fulfilment. In Matthew’s gospel we can feel particularly clearly the pain of that tension which eventually led the church, despite its Jewish roots, to see itself as the rival, rather than the sister, of continuing Judaism. For Matthew that separation was not yet complete, but it was inevitable, and his Jewish nature would not accept it with calm detachment. He had to think it out theologically, and Matthew’s gospel, more clearly than the others, presents the view of Jesus as himself the true Israel, and of those who have responded to his mission as the true remnant of the people of God in whom his eternal purpose is continued. To be the true people of God is thus no longer a matter of nationality but of relationship to Jesus, and that relationship is open to Gentile as well as to Jew, as is exemplified in the ‘faith’ of the centurion at Capernaum (8:5–13). Israel as a whole had in OT times constituted the assembly (ekkleµsi) of the people of God. Even in those days, however, it had often had to be through a faithful ‘remnant’ that God’s purpose had been continued, while the nation as a whole turned away from him. Now that remnant is focused in the ekkleµsi (‘church’) of Jesus (16:18). That ekkleµsi is no longer a national body but is to consist of disciples of all nations who are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and who follow all that Jesus has taught (28:19–20).

Jesus the king

The gospel begins with a genealogy which focuses on Jesus the true king of the line of David, the one in whom Israel’s monarchy found its fulfilment, and 1:18–25 explains how he came to be officially ‘adopted’ by Joseph, himself a ‘son of David’ (v 20), thus ensuring his royal status. He was then sought by foreigners as ‘the King of the Jews’ (2:2).

As 22:41–45 makes clear, however, Jesus’ role is more than a nationalistic one as ‘son of David’. He came to proclaim and to effect the kingship of God, but he himself also has a role as the universal king. Only in Matthew’s gospel do we hear of the kingdom of the Son of Man (13:41; 16:28; 19:28; 25:31–34), in language hardly less exalted than the OT uses of the kingship of God himself. At the outset of his ministry Jesus was offered, by the devil, the kingship of all the world (4:8–9); but he refused, and by following the way of obedience to his Father at last reached the point where he could declare ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ (28:18). Paradoxically, it was as he was mocked on the cross as the (failed) ‘King of Israel’ that he was achieving his true destiny as king of heaven and earth.

The true dignity of this paradoxical king is revealed in two phrases which ‘bracket’ the gospel. His name is declared at the beginning as ‘Immanuel’, which means ‘God with us’ (1:23), and he himself declares at the end ‘I am with you always’ (28:20). Thus Matthew allows us to see in Jesus one who, while never less than the Messiah of Israel, is yet far more.

Authorship and date

Early Christian tradition unanimously attributed this gospel to the authorship of Matthew the apostle, the former tax-collector of Capernaum, whose call it records in 9:9 (Mark and Luke call him Levi). There was also a persistent tradition that it was written originally not in Greek but in Hebrew or Aramaic. Both of these traditions are doubted by most modern scholars.

The Greek of the gospel as we know it does not read like ‘translation Greek’, and the close literary relationship of Matthew with the (Greek) gospels of Mark and Luke makes its origin in any other language unlikely. It is quite possible that Christians in the first few centuries ad were familiar with a Hebrew or Aramaic work which was traditionally associated with Matthew, but unlikely that it was our gospel. Papias, the earliest writer to mention Matthew’s writing, attributes to him a compilation of ‘sayings’ in Hebrew or Aramaic, and some believe that he was referring not to the gospel we know but to one of its sources (perhaps the source ‘Q’ which many believe was used by the authors of Matthew and Luke; see the relevant section in ‘Reading the gospels’). But Papias’ statement is too brief to be clear, and its original context is unknown.

If it is improbable that Matthew’s gospel was written in Hebrew or Aramaic, can we take the other aspect of early tradition, the identity of the author as Matthew the apostle, any more seriously? Or does Papias’ statement suggest that this tradition arose in connection with a document other than our gospel? We cannot be sure, but the writers of the early Christian centuries offer us no other candidate for authorship, and a tradition which is both early and unanimous should not be simply assumed to be false unless the nature of the book itself makes it clearly inappropriate.

In fact the traditional attribution fits rather well, in that a Jewish tax-collector turned Christian leader might well be expected to exhibit the sort of tension in his attitude to Judaism which we have noticed above. Moreover, tax-collectors were, by virtue of their profession, used to handling records and documents, and so Matthew may well have functioned as a sort of ‘secretary’ to the apostolic group.

Such suggestions, however, fall far short of proof. Of the early Christians whose names we know, the Matthew to whom early tradition attributed the gospel is not an improbable candidate. But the text of the gospel itself does not say who the author was, and the matter may well be left open.

Until the nineteenth century it was almost universally believed that Matthew was the first gospel to be written. With the growth of belief in the priority of Mark, Matthew began to be dated later, and is now generally placed in the last quarter of the first century. But in recent discussion, both the priority of Mark and the whole relative dating scheme adopted by modern scholarship have been increasingly questioned, and it is wiser to look for any indications of date in the gospel itself. (See the introductory article ‘Reading the gospels’ for the changing opinions on the literary relationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke.)

The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in ad 70 is a prominent concern of Matthew. But it is always spoken of as a future event (naturally so, since it is Jesus who is presented as speaking of it). Some commentators believe that the language used (e.g. in 22:6–7) reflects Matthew’s knowledge of the event itself, not just of its prediction by Jesus, and therefore date the gospel after ad 70. Others have no difficulty with such ‘circumstantial’ prediction, and point out that the language used is similar to that of other such prophecies in the OT and elsewhere, so that it need not depend on observation of the event. There are also some passages in Matthew which presuppose that the temple was still intact (5:23–24; 17:24–27; 23:16–22); and these have not been edited out in the way a writer after ad 70 might have been expected to do.

Other arguments depend on the relative scheme of dating in both the writing of the NT documents and the development of Jewish—Christian relations which is presupposed. There is little room for dogmatism here, and some scholars regard a date in the early 60s as an attractive alternative to the more commonly proposed date around ad 80.

Further reading

J. R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, BST (IVP, 1978).

R. T. France, Matthew, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1989).

———, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher (Paternoster/Zondervan, 1989).

D. A. Carson, Matthew, EBC (Zondervan, 1984).

G. N. Stanton, Interpretation of Matthew (SPCK, 1983).

cf. compare

OT Old Testament

NT New Testament

BST The Bible Speaks Today

TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary

EBC Expositor’s Bible Commentary

Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Mt 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.