It has been suggested that the Gospel was written by a converted scribe, "Matthew" being a pun. He makes much effective use of the Hebrew style haggeda or spiritual story-telling, so he was probably a trained scribe. This is rather different from the modern history writing style, and should be interpreted differently. The writer was expected to make changes to the story to emphasise its spiritual meaning. The author of Matthew apparently did just this, and was also clearly steeped in the Hebrew scriptures. Burridge calls this "the most Jewish of Gospels".[1 p.67]
An alternative view identifies the author with the tax collector who became a follower of Jesus in Matthew 9:9, cf. Luke 5:27.
Either of these theories are consistent with the author being particularly literate and a habitual record-keeper, and probably conversant with the Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew languages.
Content and structure
Matthew 1:23 tells us that the theme of the book is "God with us". He returns to it at the end when Jesus promises in the Great Commission to remain with us. It has traditionally been associated with a human face (one of the four living creatures in Ezekiel 1:4–28 and Revelation chapters 4–6) which highlights Jesus teaching the people in five discourses[70 p.7].
Matthew's Gospel is divided into three sections by the two identical phrases "From that time on Jesus began to ..." which occur in Matthew 4:17 and Matthew 16:21. The themes of the three sections appear to be Jesus's birth and upbringing in private; Jesus's public ministry preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven; and Jesus's sacrifice for sins. In the first Jesus appeared to be an ordinary person; in the second he lived as a prophet; and in the third he revealed himself as the Messiah. The prophetic message of the middle section "the Kingdom of God is at hand" can be examined in the light of Marcus Maxwell's view that all prophecy is conditional on the hearer's response. Some commentators argue that the messianic Kingdom was at hand if the Jews would accept their messiah; but they did not, so even the kingdom they tried to cling to under the Romans was destroyed around 70 C.E. (Matthew 21:42–43, cf. Luke 19:26).
Matthew's Gospel makes particularly subtle use of the Old Testament, usually without telling the reader to look for the allusions that are present. See 1 Corinthians 1:22. Matthew seems to have had a wealthy Greek-speaking background or target audience, because he includes many references to property, and where Aramaic terms are used he explains them in Greek. Matthew's Gospel is reckoned by many to have written after Mark, using Mark's Gospel as the main source but with much new material added, most notably the Sermon on the Mount. See comment on Mark 13:4. The argument for a late date is supported by the use of words like ecclesia that, it is said, did not exist at the time of Christ. However, see comment on Matthew 16:18.
Comparison of Matthew with Mark shows that:
The latter seems to fit in with the late date, when the Apostles were highly respected church leaders. Matthew also emphasises their authority, e.g. the keys of heaven in Matthew 16:17–19 and 18:18, cf. the way the authority of the Ruler of each synagogue was regarded as authorised to excommunicate or admit people, and to declare actions legal or illegal. Thus the church is the new synagogue and the Apostles are its rulers. This thinking comes from the Hebrew word "shalich" which is directly equivalent to the Greek word from which we get Apostle. It means "sent" in the sense of one sent not as a messenger but with executive authority. Effectively the person he represents undertakes to abide by any decisions the delegate makes while acting on his behalf. The High Priest used to send emissaries with that authority, and the High Priest had to keep any promises made by the emissary. This has been transferred into the C of E teaching about Absolution, where Christ's authority is delegated to the Priest.
The additions to Mark comprise the genealogy and five blocks of additional teaching, each concluded with the words "When Jesus had finished these sayings ...". The arrangement of these seems to follow the pattern of the five books of the Pentateuch, implying that he saw Jesus as giving a "new Law" yet not taking anything away from the old law (unlike Ephesians 2:15). This laid heavy demands on people hence Paul's condemnation of the "Judaisers" and "Circumcision Party".
In New Testament times there was dispute between Rabbis not only about resurrection but also divorce, because Deuteronomy 24:1 is not particularly clear (though Malachi 2:16 is!). Job asked in Job 14:14, "If man dies, will he live again?" The hard-liners led by Shammai allowed no divorce apart from cases of unchastity; the liberals led by Hillel allowed divorce for almost any dissatisfaction. Matthew 19:7 agrees with Shammai, whereas Mark 10:4 is much more radical, confirming a strict interpretation but implying that a wife might divorce her husband. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul agrees with Mark's recollection of what Jesus said.
Matthew 11:29 "take my yoke upon you" quotes Ecclesiasticus where Wisdom (equivalent to the Law) is speaking. The concept here is one of "standing under" (hypostatis), three underlying hypostases (or realities) of God. God makes himself real to us through Wisdom, through the Law, and through the Word, a much more satisfactory model than three persons of the Trinity. This is the concept that John developed in to the "Logos" (see John 1:1). John Stott describes the three persons of the Trinity as "distinct personal modes of being" [2 p.66]. C S Lewis[3 p.138] asks us to visualise this as we were "flat-landers" who exist in two dimensions and can comprehend a square, being asked to visualise a cube by thinking if it as squares in three planes. It may seem contradictory for several squares to make up one object, but in the higher order of existence where cubes are found it is perfectly natural. In the same way, in God's higher existence a being with three persons is perfectly natural.
Matthew seems to give Joseph's account of Jesus's early life while Luke gives Mary's side of the story[2 p.74]. However, whatever the differences, it seems that the beginnings of both are trying to prove two points:
"There is a particular focus on the decisions that Joseph and Mary have to make and how they make them. The Gospel writer understands them to be exemplars of all that is required in people of faith. For Matthew, the angelic visitations provide guidance and reassurance".
Matthew explains the tension between Bethlehem and Nazareth by means of the exile in Egypt, and Luke uses the census. Some say that the census seems less plausible because to be counted you usually don't go elsewhere to be counted, rather you stop moving about. However, Quirinius made a census not of people but of taxable property.[4 p.88]
Matthew makes much use of recapitulation: Moses (e.g. exile, law), Joseph (dreams, betrayal, Egypt, restoration), as shown by the order in which events are recounted, which always matches something in the Old Testament. For example, there was a sense that the Jews had been adopted as sons at the Exodus from Egypt (Deuteronomy 1:31 and Hosea 11:1 "out of Egypt I have called my son"), after which they crossed the sea and entered the desert for 40 years. Jesus's adoption is seen in baptism and subsequent testing in the desert for 40 days. The three temptations seem to represent three archetypal sins which the Hebrews committed in the desert, as described against Matthew 4:1.
Matthew chapters 5–7: The Sermon on the Mount
According to Matthew 5:1–2, the sermon was addressed to both the Disciples and the crowd. We should assume that Jesus would say much the same to us. It seems to be an important part of Jesus's teaching, yet we often shy away from it, probably finding it too challenging. If it is truly important we must face up to it. The life of Jesus shows how it works in practice.
The sermon warns us not to be legalistic; it follows that the sermon itself is not to be interpreted legalistically. We seem to have an in-built bias towards legalism, and as we read the Bible, and the Sermon on the Mount in particular, we must watch continually for the onset of legalism. As soon as we find ourselves interpreting the Sermon on the Mount legalistically, we can be sure we have misunderstood it.
The Sermon on the Mount has been compared to the Pole Star: a reference point to steer by, which is essential, though you never get there (see Exodus 20:2 on whether the "Ten Commandments" similarly illustrate what righteousness looks like, rather than commanding what we should do). The practical outworking of the Sermon on the Mount is given in Romans 12–14 and in James, but in many ways the theoretical outworking is more important.
The relationship between the Sermon and the Law is shown most clearly in Chapter 5, where a number of statements start with the words "You have heard ...". In each case Jesus says we must not simply meet the requirements of the law, but exceed them. This is consistent with his statement in Matthew 5:17 that he had not come to sweep away the Law; rather he has come to show us the attitude of mind that pleases God by practical love (actions not feelings) that fulfils the law. God seeks willing compassion not grudging compliance. We must co-operate with the Holy Spirit as he changes us into the kind of people that the sermon describes.
Generally the Sermon replaces outward holy actions with inner purity. Paul's explanation the Law was given to reveal Sin (Romans 3:20, Romans 5:20 etc.) is the key to understanding Jesus's purpose. Jesus found that some claimed to have kept the Law and to be free from Sin; thus the Law had not been effective for them, so he had to give a stricter Law to achieve the desired result. This puts us all on an equal footing: none of us can claim to keep this Law. The haughtiness of the Pharisees is swept away; we are all sinners together. We must all approach God as the publican did, seeking mercy with humility.
Jesus starts with the "Beatitudes", explaining that happiness is not to be found where most people look for it, but in relationship with God. Then he speaks against pride ("the essential vice, the utmost evil...the completely anti-God state of mind" [3 p.107]), legalism and selfishness. He warns us against ostentatious public praying, and teaches the "Lord's Prayer" addressed to "Abba". Jesus concludes by exhorting us do not be anxious but trust God, because true security is to be found in God, as illustrated by the "house on the rock" image.
© David Billin 2002–2022