Introduction: Gaining Perspective on a Gospel


Gaining Perspective on a Gospel

Pick up any copy of the New Testament and you will discover the initial four books are entitled “Gospels.” But what is a Gospel?[1] Richard Burridge demonstrates[2] that “the synoptic gospels belong within the overall genre of βίοι [lives].” He argues this based upon internal features:

  • their introductions, naming the subject at the beginning (Mark and Matthew) or starting with a formal preface (Luke);
  • half of the verbs are taken up with Jesus’ words and deeds, a concentration on the primary subject found in Greco-Roman βίοι;
  • the focus on the death of the subject (15-20% of the narrative) in the Synoptics is similar to that in contemporary βίοι;
  • the topics of ancestry, birth, boyhood and education, great deeds, virtues and death reveal a similar range;
  • the style and form of Greek is compatible with βίοι;
  • they have a serious and respectful air, appropriate to their subject matter;
  • Jesus is a real character, not a mere stereotype;

and external features:

  • they use prose narrative, just as contemporary βίοι;
  • their length is comparable (Matthew 18,305 words, Mark 11,242 and Luke 19,428) situating them as medium length writings;
  • they are chronological accounts moving from Jesus’ baptism to his passion, with topical materials inserted, like contemporary βίοι;
  • in terms of scale they focus primarily on one person;
  • the combination of stories, sayings and speeches in the Synoptics is similar to that found in various βίοι;
  • the use of various sources is comparable;
  • and they develop our sense of Jesus’ character by reporting his words and deeds.

I would concur with Burridge’s evaluation. Given the range of authorial intent and purpose that we find in these contemporary βίοι, it is not surprising to see apologetic, ideological, and didactic purposes as primary and frequent emphases within the Synoptics.

If Matthew[3] is incorporating major portions of Mark’s Gospel into his narrative, using it as a source, then we see him tidying it up in terms of style, adding ancestry, birth and infancy narratives, as well as defining the chronological structure more clearly and adding more topics. In other words, Matthew brings the Gospel genre into closer affinity with the βίοι genre.[4] He also validates the contents of Mark’s Gospel by doing so.

We also, however, must realize that these materials were written (at least in the case of Mark and Matthew) by Jewish people primarily for a Jewish audience, familiar with the sacred writings that grounded Judaism. While we may not be able to speak of a Jewish canon of religious writings at this point, there does seem to be some consensus that the Torah, Psalms (wisdom materials) and Prophets (including historical books) did form a sacred collection of diverse scrolls — no books yet (cf. Introduction to Ben Sirach, Qumran document 4QMMT C 10-11(159-52 BCE) “the book of Moses and the books of the Prophets and (the writings) of David…”; Luke 24:45ff, Josephus’ materials (Contra Apionem1.37-41 “22 sacred books – 5 of the Law, 13 Prophets, and 4 others”). When we consider that much of this material also incorporated content that was somewhat biographical in nature (e.g., Exodus 1-20 – Moses) and dealt with similar motifs, as well as the fact that the Gospel writers, particularly Matthew, deliberately makes fundamental connections with this sacred literature, we must consider the influence of Jewish literary form and style upon these early Christian narratives as well. To name just three examples, the form of the genealogy in Matthew 1 and the many parables that Jesus taught, reflect similar materials in the Jewish Scriptures. As well, the narrative materials in Exodus 1-20 which describe the life and leadership of Moses feature similar interests. And then, we cannot ignore the element of fulfillment that permeates the text. So, while we can agree with Burridge’s general definition of the Synoptic Gospels as part of the family of Greco-Roman βίοι, we must also keep our eyes on this Jewish heritage and its formative influence in these narratives.

What are some of the implications for interpretation that we must keep in mind?

  1. The Gospels are not unique literary documents. They share too many features with similar βίοι in the Greco-Roman world and also Jewish literary precedents.
  2. Our expectations of the narrative must be the same as the original Jewish author and audience would have had. So, when we seek to ‘decode’ the story, we must be careful not to use modern concepts of biography or historiography.
  3. While ancient βίοι had various purposes, including entertainment, we discern that those written about the founders of schools of philosophy or religious movements tended to focus on apologetic and teaching functions and so we might not be far wrong to begin our exploration of Matthew’s Gospel with a similar perspective, unless the text leads us to a different conclusion. It is a useful starting point.
  4. The key to the interpretation of and motive for writing the Gospel must lie in the primary character, namely Jesus. So, we must seek to understand this emphasis upon Jesus hermeneutically. Why was he chosen as the central figure and what does the writer want to affirm about him? We might suggest that Christology must be one of, if not the most singular focus of our attention, because it was the primary concern of the writer.
  5. Because a Gospel is a form of βίος there are constraints upon free composition. We can discern truth about the historical Jesus from Matthew’s βίος Ἰησοῦ. We want to discern what each passage will reveal about the central character and his significance in the light of the Evangelist’s comprehensive purpose.

Ben Witherington[5] in his commentary on Mark’s Gospel agreed with Burridge’s perspective and  indicated that this means our interpretation must consider the Evangelist’s intent to ask and answer some key questions – who was Jesus, what was he like, and why is he worth writing a biography about? In the case of Matthew, we might also discern a closer interest in cause-effect relationships between events, particularly those described in the Jewish Scriptures.[6]

Burridge also makes the interesting argument that the production of a Christian βίος with Jesus as the hero makes “an enormous Christological claim.”[7] In comparison to the first century Jewish context,  “no rabbi is that unique; each rabbi is only important in as much as he represents the Torah, which holds the central place. To write a biography is to replace the Torah by putting a human person in the centre of the stage. The literary genre makes a major theological shift which becomes an explicit Christological claim – that Jesus of Nazareth is Torah embodied.”[8]

The understanding of Gospels as βίοι also has implications for the use of Gospels in discerning Christian ethics/moral instruction. In ancient βίοι virtue was revealed through a person’s words and deeds. So in a Christian Gospel narrative, we discover Jesus’ teaching and how he personally expressed and practiced these values. Thus, people are urged to follow Jesus, not just listen to his words or meditate on his teachings. Imitation is critical. Speeches offer crystalized representations of the hero’s point of view. The intimations of his deity or at least very close relationship with the deity urge our careful attention to what he says and does.

While in terms of genre a gospel shares many features with a Greco-Roman βίος, it also has some features that link it with historiography (i.e., the form of Luke’s preface which is similar to that found at the beginning of contemporary historical writings) and theology – the attempt to explain who God is and what he is doing in the world. The narrative gains sense and impact because it is historically rooted and connected. Jesus is a real person who lived in Galilee and Judea during the first third of the first century during the reign of Herod Antipas. His followers became key leaders in the emergent Christian church. While the events that the Gospels relate preceded the writing of many if not most of the NT epistles, the Gospels themselves probably postdate these same epistles. So we must ask ourselves at some point why did Gospels, these Jesus books, begin to emerge in the middle of the 60’s, at the time when the Jewish war against Rome broke out and after the production of a significant number of formal epistles written by Christian leaders? How did they contribute to the establishment of the Christian movement and inform the division between Christianity and Judaism that occurs at that time? As well, what relationship to these Gospel narratives have with the thematic focuses expressed in the epistolary literature? And also, what relationship does a Gospel (in our case Matthew’s Gospel) have with the events narrated, i.e., what sources were used? Who is the person named “Matthew” in the Gospel tradition and what connection did he have personally with the Historical Jesus and with the composition of this Gospel?

In my view we have to consider these Gospel narratives as essentially biographical and historical documents, but written with a theological (or ideological) purpose. They demonstrate how God’s plans find expression in human lives and history and what sense humans should make of these events for themselves, their communities and for defining their worldview. Within the Jewish context of the first century CE they provide a distinctive Jewish view on the interpretation of the Jewish scriptures and Yahweh’s purposes for Israel, that contest other current Jewish ideologies presented by the Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees.

The fact that we have four Gospels within the NT Canon should also be considered carefully.


Gaining Perspective on the Synoptic Question

Although Matthew occupies first position in our New Testament canon, it is followed by two other closely related Gospel narratives, named Mark and Luke. These three are categorizes as the “Synoptic Gospels” because they have so much material in common. We do not know who created this order or what the motivation was. The literary, historical, theological, and social relationships among these three narratives continue to engage scholarly attention.

  1. In terms of literary issues the primary questions relate to the sources used by each writer in the

preparation of their narratives and how the current structure of the Gospels relate to these sources. The verbal and sequential parallels, similarities and dissimilarities found in these Gospels lead us to conclude that they did not merely have access to the same sources, but in fact one or two of them knew of and used the other Gospel(s) as a literary source. What the precise relationship might be remains debated. The evidence seems to point to what is called ‘Markan priority’, with Matthew and Luke in varying degrees incorporating Markan materials into their later compositions. Whether the ‘edition’ Matthew or Luke may have had of this Markan material differed from ours or whether it was our current Markan gospel, again is debated.

Matthew and Luke share material not found in Mark. While some might argue that Mathew or Luke borrowed from one or the other, most scholars think that they had access to a common source and this unknown and currently non-existent exemplar is named ‘Q’ (from the German word Quelle = source). Whether ‘Q’ ever existed as a distinct literary composition is not a settled matter. Second century gospel documents such as the “Gospel of Thomas” seem to have a form that ‘Q’ is postulated to have had – a series of Jesus sayings without narrative setting. However, this document reflects theological motifs that characterize some second century Christian groups and is de-historicized, i.e., it does not set the sayings of Jesus in any historically-based narrative.

Further, we also find materials in Matthew that are peculiar to it and in Luke that are peculiar to it. This suggests that Matthew had access to at least three different sources – Mark, Q traditions, and additional materials. Apart from Mark, we cannot ‘recover’ these other sources with any degree of certainty. However, comparing the way that Matthew incorporates Markan materials within his Gospel can give us some perspective on the emphases that Matthew wishes to communicate through his narrative. This, of course, presumes Markan priority as a working assumption. And we cannot then overlook the significance of this writer using the Markan account so extensively in composing his Gospel.

We have little understanding about the historical relationship between Matthew and Luke. However, where they both use the same materials, we again need to consider what we might learn about Matthew’s theological perspective by comparing his presentation in such cases with Luke’s, considering both similarities and differences.

One of the tools we have for studying these NT Gospel narratives is called a “Synopsis.” The narratives of these three Gospels, often accompanied by the materials from John’s Gospel, are placed in parallel columns for easy comparison. Your study of Matthew will be enriched if you take time to access a synopsis. You should use a resource of this nature when doing research for various assignments in this course.

  1. If Mark was the first gospel narrative composed, as many think, then Matthew and Luke must

follow it chronologically. However, the actual degree of chronological separation between Matthew and Mark is disputed. There seems to be a quotation from Matthew’s Gospel in Ignatius’ letter To The Smyrneans 1.1, to be dated c. A.D. 110-115. In reference to Jesus, Ignatius writes that he was “baptized by John, that ‘all righteousness might be fulfilled by him’” (βεβαπτισμένον ὑπὸ Ἰωάννου, ἵνα πληρωθῇ πᾶσα δικαιοσύνη ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ; cf. Matthew 3:15 πληρῶσαι πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνην).

If Mark was written after Peter’s death and prior to the end of the Roman-Jewish war (AD 70), then Matthew’s Gospel must be placed either in the late 60’s or early 70’s of the first decade.

We have no sense from Matthew’s Gospel that Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed (70CE) and so we probably need to presume it was composed prior to or very close to the events of 70CE. Although other elements are appealed to frequently (i.e., claimed confusion in Matthew’s references to Jewish religious leaders; use of the term ‘Rabbi’ (23:7-8); reference to Zechariah son of Berechiah is identified by some as Zechariah son of Baris assassinated in the Temple area by Zealots prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE; we know that the Sadducees as a movement did not survive the destruction of Jerusalem. So if, as some suppose, Matthew is written 80-100CE, why is there so much concern about a Jewish sect that no longer exists?

  1. The earliest references to Matthew as the writer of this Gospel in the patristic records occur in

quotes from a work by Papias (early second century CE), quoted by Eusebius in Historia Ecclesiastica 5.8.2. Papias stated that Ματθαῖος μὲν οὖν Ἑβραΐδι διάλεκτῳ ἡ λόγια συνετάξατο, ἡρμήνευσεν δ’ αὐτὰ ὡς ἦν δυνατὸς ἕκαστος (“Matthew then compiled the oracles in the Hebrew/Aramaic language, and each interpreted/translated them as they were able”). The current Greek Matthew shows little indication of being a translated document. So we cannot discern any direct linkage between the Greek Matthew and this Aramaic collection of Jesus’ oracles described by Papias. The author of this Greek gospel may have incorporated sayings from this Aramaic source into his narrative (perhaps into the five or six large sections of discourse), but if so, they already seem to have been in Greek form. Note that in the introduction to his Gospel, Luke indicates he had access to many different sources for his narrative and we should assume that Matthew had similar sources at his disposal.

4. Another matter of historical connectivity is the linkage between Matthew’s Gospel

and the words and deeds of the historical Jesus. If Matthew’s Gospel does predate the Roman-Jewish war’s destruction of Jerusalem, and the author is the apostle Matthew or someone close to him, then the author’s life does overlap with key figures in the development of Christianity, including the apostles, as well as Jesus himself. Peter, as far as we can determine, probably perished during the persecution that occurred in aftermath of the burning of Rome (c. 64CE). Eyewitnesses of Jesus’ words, deeds and resurrection were still alive (the apostle John seems to survive into the 80’s of the first century). We have every reason to believe that the sources would present an accurate picture of the reality of Jesus. Do we have any evidence that the first Christians and their leaders engaged in substantial embellishment of these traditions and created new materials, with no foundation in the historical reality of Jesus? None at all. Rather we see them being very careful to present the Gospel truthfully. A significant element in the Gospel presentation after the resurrection was the connection of people with the events that defined the historical Jesus, just as Israel’s sacred writings sought to connect subsequent generations of Jewish people with Israel’s origins.[9] The focus on “witnessing” the resurrection particularly (Acts 1) indicates that this was a very critical issue in the presentation of the good news (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-12).

5.Social relationships within early Christianity are not easy to discern or document.

However, all indications we do have from the NT documents is that the leaders and early writers, e.g., Paul, Peter, James, Luke, Mark, were networked, knowing and interacting with one another. When Matthew decided to use Mark’s Gospel as the framework for his narrative, what did this say about the way Mark’s Gospel was being perceived in the early church? If Mark’s narrative was primarily intended for Gentile readers and if Matthew’s narrative was primarily intended for Jewish readers, then what was Matthew saying when he incorporated it into his Gospel?

Attempts to connect this Gospel with a specific community have occurred numerous times. The most commonly accept hypothesis is that Matthew wrote his Gospel in the context of a Jewish-Christian community in or around Antioch. However, in suggesting this, we should not suppose that Matthew wrote intentionally only for part of the church community. He may have written out of a concern for some social groups within the church, but he intends his Gospel to speak to all believers who are forming the new people of God created in the Messiah Jesus. He certainly wants Jewish Christians to understand how the Gospel enables them to live in covenant faithfulness before God, even as they are committed to Jesus as Messiah. He also wants to affirm that the Messiah is the one who initiates and authorizes the mission to the nations with all of its attendant changes. So Matthew incorporates elements that show how Jesus’ teachings related to the minutiae of the Mosaic Law. Yet Jesus’ mission is for all nations and this includes the Jewish people.

I would suggest we need to read Matthew’s Gospel along with Hebrews and James – epistles addressed primarily to Jewish Christians, and perhaps 1 Peter. As well, we should consider Paul’s discussion in Romans 9-11 and Ephesians 2 about the plans of God for Jewish people in the context of the Messiah’s death and resurrection. Matthew writes at a time when Christianity was establishing its own identity separate from Judaism, but co-existing with it and desiring to demonstrate that Christianity represented the final phase of God’s covenant promise to Abraham. Jews who oppose God in this are not participants in the Abrahamic covenant, despite their protests to the contrary. The imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple have to be assessed in the light of Jesus’ prophetic words (Matthew 23-25). This is the new reality that the Messiah’s death and resurrection have created. Those Jews who are truly obedient to God will embrace Jesus as Messiah. This does not mean the abandonment of all Jewish religious practices, but it does mean a re-evaluation of their continuing import and practice. Matthew’s Gospel presents a new vision of the true Israel that Jews have to consider if they are to be faithful to Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham.

So the Synoptic relationships and social/historical contexts in which Matthew exists must be kept constantly in our mind’s eye as we seek to understand Matthew’s narrative and its message.

At this point we might address the question why the canonical Gospels began to emerge in the 60’s of the first century. Most of Paul’s letters were written prior to their appearance. Perhaps as well we should include 1 Peter, James and Hebrews in this situation too. We often forget this sequence in our interpretation of the Gospels. Did Matthew write in full knowledge of Paul’s letters or those of Peter or James or Hebrews? If so, is Matthew writing in positive response to the issues Paul expresses, explaining how Jesus’ teachings and actions provided the basis for Paul’s Gospel, or does he seek to correct wrong impressions? When we consider that terms such as ‘disciple’, ‘Kingdom of God’ and ‘son of man’, common to Jesus’ teaching occur infrequently or not at all in NT Epistles and that terms such as ‘church’ occur very rarely in the Gospels, then we have to ask how to read these different parts of the NT in the light of each other.

This becomes particularly important when we consider the different emphases placed upon the significance of Jesus’ life and death in the Epistles and the Gospels, i.e., concepts of atonement, salvation, etc. Today we continue to struggle to understand and define the relationship between kingdom and church and much of this occurs because of the diverse terminology in these various writings.

In the case of Matthew, however, I think that he is particularly concerned to define clearly the shift in covenant understanding and the definition of the people of God that has occurred in the coming of Jesus. Judaism, as defined in Essene, Pharisee, Sadducee ideologies, no longer represents God’s program in the world. Rather, it sits under God’s judgment because it has rejected Jesus as Messiah. This is the new reality that has to be understood by Jews and non-Jews. The program of Jesus has redefined the nature of God’s people. As Matthew says, Jesus is “building my assembly and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” I think this means that we must pay attention to the theme of divine judgment in Matthew’s Gospel, especially in the light of the history of God’s dealing with Israel, i.e., the prior destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the 6th century BCE. The stylized genealogy in Matthew 1 may in fact be signaling that this phase of God’s salvation history has ended and now something quite new is beginning – the Emmanuel period — following the three earlier periods reflected in the structure of the genealogy. Who will be the “sons of Jesus Messiah,” who is the “son of God,” in this new period of God’s relationship with Israel and humanity in general?

To a very significant degree, one of the primary issues addressed by Matthew’s Gospel (and for the other Gospel writers) is a hermeneutical question. Who is reading the Jewish Sacred Scriptures correctly and interpreting Yahweh’s vision for Israel accurately? Is Jesus, who claims to be Messiah and his followers, the authoritative interpreter, or do one of several Jewish religious groups (i.e., Pharisees, Essenes, Sadducees) have this authority? The significant emphasis in Matthew’s Gospel upon the right reading of the Old Testament and its fulfillment in the actions and teachings of Jesus must be accounted for. It seems to me that Matthew is arguing the case that Jesus both as prophetic voice and Messiah presents the hermeneutical key to understanding Yahweh’s covenant direction and outcome, as expressed in the Jewish Scriptures. If this is the case, then our interpretation of the OT or Jewish Scriptures will need to follow Jesus’ lead in this matter. [Consider the parallel in Josephus’ composition “The Jewish War.” Those who represent truly Judaism are not the rebels. Note also the prophetic voices in the mid-first century he reports that forecast the destruction of the Temple.]


Matthew’s Connection with Jewish Religious Sources

One of the significant characteristics of Matthew’s Gospel is the linkage of his story with Jewish Sacred Scriptures. The fulfillment motif receives continued attention, both in the teaching of Jesus himself, as well as in the editorial sections. Such a connection joins the events and teachings of Jesus integrally with divine initiatives in the Old Testament. God continues to carry forward his ancient covenant program, but things are taking a new direction in Jesus.

In several of Paul’s letters, particularly Romans, Galatians and Ephesians, and in the Epistle to the Hebrews the question of the relationship that Jesus and Christianity have with Judaism and the Old Testament receives detailed attention. Several significant questions are addressed:

  1. in what sense does God’s work in Jesus bring to completion what he initiated in the first covenant?
  2. do the Jewish people continue to have a special covenant relationship with God outside of Messiah Jesus’ “new covenant,” or does this new covenant incorporate what God had initiated in the old covenant?
  3. is participation in the new Messianic assembly now the way in which God expects Jewish people to express their covenant loyalty to him?
  4. what happens to promises about the land or a new Davidic reign that are part of the first covenant? Do they continue or are they transformed into new spiritual realities in the second covenant established in Jesus?
  5. how should Jewish Christians understand and relate to God’s commands given to Israel through Moses? Do things continue unchanged or can Jewish Christians now treat the commands about Sabbath, circumcision, clean vs. unclean, etc. in a new way? Did Jesus give direction to his followers about such core parts of Judaism? What principles do Jewish Christians and other believers use to interpret and apply the Jewish Scriptures to their life under the rule of the Messiah?
  6. in what sense did Jewish Scriptures now become Christian Scriptures? What is the new key to their understanding and interpretation?

Matthew seeks to address these and other questions that Jewish Christians wrestled with.

Inherent within these interactions is a significant apologetic purpose. Much was at stake. We know from second century Christian writers that the engagement with Judaism continued to be a very difficult challenge.

First, we need to note the ten OT citations that Matthew introduces with variations on the expression “all this happened so that what was spoken by the Lord (κυρίου refers to Yahweh) through the prophets might be fulfilled” (ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ κυρίου διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος. 1:22-23; 2:15; 2:17-18; 2:23; 4:14-16; 8:17; 12:17-21; 13:35; 21:4-5; 27:9-10). We might also include with this number 2:5-6 (where the verb πληρόω is omitted) and 13:14; 26:54, 56 (which include the verb πληρόω but no other components of the formula). This formulaic introduction is found only in Matthew.

πληροῦν (to fulfill) – 16x(Mt) 2x(Mk) 9x(Lk). In all of Matthew’s uses (except 13:48) this word has a significant theological sense.

τὸ ῥηθέν (that which was said) – found thirteen times (cf. 3:3; 22:31; 24:15) in Matthew’s Gospel and nowhere else in the NT.

διὰ τοῦ προφήτου (through the prophet) –  peculiar to Matthew (cf.  also 2:5; 3:3; 24:15).

Prabhu notes that “the closest parallels to the fulfillment formulas of MT are…not to be found in the New Testament, nor in the Jewish or Christian literature of the time, but in the Old Testament.”[10] We might consider 2 Chronicles 36:21-22 “to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah” (cf. 1 Kgs 2:27; Ezra 1:1).[11] Why has Matthew incorporated this expression and placed it so often and so strategically within his Gospel narrative?  As well we should note that in most of the other quotations that Matthew incorporates into his narrative and shared with other Synoptic Gospels, he tends to follow the Septuagint text, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. However, in these formula quotations (apart from 1:23) the “text differs substantially from the Septuagint….In most cases…Matthew’s version seems to be simply an independent and ‘free’ rendering of the passage concerned, sometimes apparently adapting the text to allow the reader to see more clearly how it has found its fulfillment in Jesus.”[12] So Matthew is doing something very deliberate when he uses these materials in the formation of his narrative.

We will need to take special note of the content of each quotation in their Old Testament and Matthean contexts and how they point us towards key elements in Matthew’s theological presentation. Whether as Stendahl[13] hypothesized, these quotations and their interpretation point to the existence of a “Matthean School” of early Jewish-Christian interpretation, similar to the Qumran Pesher tradition, is yet to be established. However, as Gundry notes, Matthew incorporates OT materials intο his narrative as he considered it helpful and using the fulfillment formula was only one of many ways that he does this. So we have to be careful not to segment the ‘formula quotations’ as forming in Matthew’s mind a particularly distinctive group of OT references. They do tend to occur, however, in those parts of the narrative that are peculiar to Matthew and so this might explain why their OT text form is different from other quotations in those parts of his narrative that parallel the Synoptic Gospels.

Of course there are many other ways that Matthew links the story of Jesus with the Old Testament framework. The first two or three chapters do this extensively, using the genealogy, the text of Matthew 1:1, and his deliberate usage of religious language found in the Greek translation of the OT, as well as reference to OT characters, visions, and angels.  However, as Matthew’s narrative unfolds, we discern dependence upon materials from the Mosaic Law (Sermon on the Mount) as well.

Who Wrote this Gospel?

The traditional ascription for this narrative is κατὰ Μαθθαῖον. Hengel in Four Gospels[14] argues that titles such as this go back to the first century. However, even so, we cannot be sure they relate to authorship. Literally the title means “According to Matthew.” The only Matthew mentioned in the text is the apostle whose name occurs at 9:9 and 10:3. As already noted, Papias says that “Matthew compiled the oracles in the Hebrew/Aramaic language.” However, we are not certain about the relationship between this compilation and the Greek Gospel of Matthew that we find in the NT. Irenaeus, who writes around 180 AD repeats the essence of Papias’ statement (Haereses 3.1.1.), saying that Matthew wrote “a Gospel for the Hebrews in their own language.” As stated earlier, we have no indication that the Greek Gospel of Matthew is a translation from Hebrew or Aramaic.[15] Thus Irenaeus must be referring to a different document or an earlier edition of the Gospel of Matthew as we know it.

It is quite possible that the apostle Matthew did compile a collection of Jesus’ sayings in Hebrew or Aramaic. However, if that is the case, then to our knowledge it has not survived. If there is linkage between this Hebrew document and our Greek Matthew, then we have no sense of their relationship. Whether we are to suppose that traces of this compilation formed the basis for the six great blocks of teaching in this Gospel remains a very uncertain hypothesis.

Some have pointed to Matthew 13:52 which, it is argued, may be an “oblique self-reference.” The term γραμματεύς in this passage does not mean “teacher of the law”, but a “clerk, secular scribe, recorder.” C.F. D. Moule considers it not inconceivable that the Lord Jesus said to tax-collector Matthew, “You have been a ‘writer’…; you have had plenty to do with the commercial side of just the topics alluded to in the parables – farmer’s stock, fields, treasure-grove, fishing revenues; now that you have become a disciple, you can bring all this out again – but with a difference.”[16] Alternatively Jesus may be indicating the future, intended role of his followers as Messianically authorized interpreters of the Jewish Scriptures, replacing the current scribal class operating in Judaism in this respect. I do not think this text provides any indication about the question of authorship for this Gospel.

We just do not know who wrote this Gospel, if it was not the apostle Matthew. We will continue to use the term “Gospel of Matthew” for convenience, but we are not saying by this that the apostle Matthew wrote this Gospel. He may well have and I have not discerned anything in this narrative that would preclude him from authorship. Perhaps, like the traditions that claim Mark was dependent upon Peter’s preaching for the substance of his Gospel, the person who wrote the Gospel of Matthew similarly was dependent upon material that the apostle Matthew had compiled. Who this writer was, if not the apostle Matthew, remains a mystery.

In reaching this conclusion, we must be careful not to draw unwarranted negative conclusions about the authenticity or historical rootedness of its material. Most of the documents in the OT are anonymous as they have come to us, in that we do not know for sure who wrote them. Within Jewish tradition authorship was not a major issue. If, as we have argued, this narrative was written before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, then its connection with early Christian sources is established, particularly since it seems to have incorporated most of Mark’s narrative. As well, its acceptance early in the church’s life as a trustworthy account deserves notice.

How Does this Narrative Work?

John Nolland in his recent commentary on Matthew’s Gospel[17] provides an excellent summary of the various, characteristic compositional and literary techniques that the author uses to tie his narrative together. Some of these were identified through redaction-critical studies and some more recently through the application of “narrative criticism.”

  1. Repetition of Formulas
    1. The writer uses them to identify sets of materials scattered throughout his narrative, e.g., formulaic introduction to the ten OT citations. He concludes five of the discourses with “it so happened that when Jesus had finished these words….”
    2. Repeated formulas unite sections within a segment, e.g., beatitudes, “you have heard that it was said to the people of old….But I say to you”; the woes in Matt.23, or the formula introducing parables in Matt.13 “the kingdom of heaven is like.”
    3. Six uses of the expression (beginning in 8:12) “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
  2. Framing (symmetrical paralleling of events)
    1. The call by Jesus for people to follow him (8:18-22) and his call to Levi/Matthew (9:9-13) frames the section on miracles in 8:23-9:8 that comments on what discipleship entails.
    2. Perhaps in the Passion Narrative (26-27) framing plays a significant part in the way the author seeks to help the readers understand what is happening.
  3. Chiasm – symmetrical framing of diverse elements around an emphasized centre.
    1. 1:1,17 – order of genealogical elements (ABC – CBA).
      1. V.1 – “Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham
      2. V. 17 – “From Abraham to David, from David to the exile, from the exile to the Christ.
    2. Jesus’ arrival in and departure from Galilee (3:13; 4:12) – frame Jesus’ preparation for his ministry.
  4. Parallelism
    1. The denial by Peter (26:20-25, (30)31-35) and betrayal by Judas (26:47-56, 69-75 are set in parallel.
    2. The use by John and Jesus of the same words to summarize their message (3:2; 4:17).
    3. Sometimes the parallels are not perfect.
  5. Internal Cross-referencing by means of language echoes
    1. The introduction of the term παραλαμβάνειν in the temptation narrative may cross-reference the antithetical parallelism between Joseph and Herod, where the term first occurs.
    2. There seem to be several cross-references linking 2:22-3:2 with 4:12-17
  6. Theme-setting episodes
    1. 9:14-17 seems to provide a set of themes that are further elaborated in the entire subsection 9:14-33.
    2. The thrust towards Jerusalem is introduced in 16:21 and then emphasized in 17:22; 19:1 and 20:17, until Jesus enters Jerusalem in 21:11.
  7. Sectional overlaps
    1. Often sections are clearly ended and new ones begun. However, sometimes material seems to overlap. For example 2:22-3:2 both ends the Infancy narrative and introduces the ministry of John and Jesus.
  8. Dramatisation
    1. Matthew prefers to tell his story through the words of his characters, rather than their actions, in comparison to Mark, for example. Matthew abbreviates narratives but does not seem to abbreviate the words of his characters. For example, he narrates one additional prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane (26:42) and in 26:72 he records one additional denial by Peter.
    2. The words of Judas add drama in 26:15.
    3. Parables also contain an unusual amount of conversation.

Along with these more formal, literary structures and techniques, we must also consider such narratological features such as how characters function and are defined, the nature of the plot and how it unfolds, the use of time and place (chronological and geographical space), and the way the whole story fits together. All of these are in the service of the rhetorical intention of the writer – what is he seeking to persuade his reader/listener to do in response to this story? And, what clues does the writer provide in his editorial materials to help us identify this rhetorical purpose?

Interpreting Matthew Today

In my opinion we need to explore the meaning of Matthew’s Gospel at three levels:

  1. What did Jesus say and do and how were these messages and deeds understood by Jewish people in Palestine in the first part of the first century CE?
  2. What did Matthew, presumably one of the apostles, want to communicate about Jesus and his significance through this narrative to first century Jewish Christians and non-believing Jews? Presumably his writes during the turbulent, tragic years of the Jewish-Roman War and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. He writes to explain what God is doing in and through these events, all tied in some way to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Messiah.
  3. What does the Holy Spirit want to communicate to us who are Jesus followers today and how do we understand this message accurately as we navigate the great cultural differences between the social context of this Gospel and the 21st century context of our respective cultures?

None of these questions are easy to investigate or answer, but they are the necessary questions we have to  consider if we are going to understand the meaning of Matthew’s narrative for God’s people today.

Key Theological Themes

While these themes are not exclusive to this Gospel’s narrative, they do seem to receive some emphasis in the way the narrator has arranged his materials.

  1. Salvation History – the place of Jesus in the plan of God for his people. The initial genealogy in Matthew 1 segments God’s dealings with his people into four eras – Abraham to David, David to the exile, the exile to the Messiah, the Messiah to the “end of the age.” The narrative is set within the junction that is occurring between the third and fourth eras. This fourth era is the last one in human history and will end when the Son of Man returns. The coming of the Messiah inaugurates this final era and puts an eschatological cast on the whole narrative – one that emphasized fulfillment and consummation. Within this final era, salvation for Israel and for non-Jews is defined in terms of human response to the Messiah and the significance of his life, death, and resurrection.
  2. Faithfulness of God/Yahweh (righteousness). Matthew’s understanding of God is essentially Jewish – monotheistic, creator, covenant-making, salvation-giving. Yet this God holds every human being accountable. Matthew emphasizes this accountability more than any other of the Gospels. God intends his rule to gain expression within human history as his people are formed and live in obedience to him. While evil is nurtured and promoted by Satan in order to thwart God’s plans, God has the wisdom, power and intention to destroy him and those associated with him. In all of this, God has revealed his plans to humanity and shows himself faithful and trustworthy in keeping his promises. Finally, Matthew expresses a clear sense that while God is one, he is still Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  3. Jesus – Messiah, King, Son of God. The central character in Matthew’s Gospel is Jesus. As argued earlier, Matthew basically follows the literary convention of βίοι, ‘Lives’, as he structures his narrative. The advent of Jesus is in response to the promise in the OT prophets. Angels announce his birth and protect his life. John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the OT prophets, blazes the trail for this Lord, calling Israel to repentant discipleship. Jesus’ words and deeds reveal clearly his intent to establish “my assembly,” based upon a radical obedience to God and trust in the Messiah’s sacrificial death for forgiveness and reconciliation with God. In the last Passover Jesus declares that the cup “is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26:28). The Messiah introduces the presence of God – his will and his authority – into the human domain in a fresh, radical way. The value of a person’s life will now be measured by his or her response to the Messiah and his message. We will seek to discern in what ways Matthew defines Jesus as “God.”
  4. The People of God. The era that precedes that of the Messiah is defined as “from the exile to the Messiah.” In the last several decades the works of N.T. Wright have challenged us to read the actions and words of Jesus as producing the spiritual return from exile that Israel had not yet experienced, even though physically it occupied Palestine. As Messiah, he offers the restoration that Israel’s prophets had promised, but which had not yet occurred in the glorious terms with which they described it (e.g., Isaiah 40). There is no doubt that Matthew regards the coming of Jesus as fulfilling the prophetic program offered by Isaiah. However, as Wright himself argues, Jesus’ presentation is doubly anti-revolutionary. He challenges the nationalistic vision of a restored and dominant Israel, no longer subservient to Rome, and which projected an anti-Gentile bias, as well as incorporating violent responses. As well, he challenges the political agenda of Rome, as in some sense presenting the divine plan for humanity. Rather Jesus presents his own revolutionary program, centred on the concept of the Kingdom of God. He offered liberation from Satan’s evil control and an opportunity for Israel to recover its role as God’s covenant people. But in reformulating the people of God, Jesus offers a much more inclusive vision that incorporates Jews and non-Jews, and redefines the moral basis for this people’s way of life. As Jesus says in Matthew 16, “I will build my assembly and the gates of Hell shall not stand against it.” The Beatitudes outline the blessings that the Messiah’s people will experience. Discipleship becomes the model by which the Messiah’s people operationalize their commitment. An apocalyptic worldview undergirds the Messiah’s vision for a new people. His vision is for a people of God that no longer use temples, sacrifices, or priests.
  5. Kingdom ethics. Much of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel explains the radical values that define discipleship. Jesus’ ethics are quite subversive, overturning or inverting commonly assumed human values within the Jewish and the Greco-Roman social realities. While the Law of Moses is important, it is redefined by Jesus and no longer is the touchstone by which the Messiah’s people are identified. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jesus’ discussions about the nature of leadership within his assembly. He models this paradigm through his own willingness to pursue the will of God even though it meant his own terrible suffering and death. God’s righteousness is more important than personal privilege, glory or wellbeing. The essential life-principles that Jesus expresses coincide with the two great commands, and a third that he adds in Matthew 28:19-20.
  6. Israel and the Missio Dei. The Jewish focus within Matthew’s narrative is evident. He makes a conscious effort to explain that the coming of Jesus as Messiah marks a fundamental change in the way God is relating to historic Israel. The privileged position is ending. All peoples will now have the opportunity to experience a covenant relationship directly and personally with God/Yahweh and participate in his Kingdom program, i.e., carrying forward the mission Dei in this age, as per the Great Commission. In my view the believing remnant of Israel, the people of God, is subsumed within the Messiah’s new assembly, i.e., within the Kingdom. We get no hint from Matthew, in my view, that ethnic Israel retains any special place in God’s program, other than the opportunity to participate in the new Messianic assembly, just like any other human being. Conversely, the strongest warnings about divine judgment that Jesus gives in Matthew narrative are to the leaders and people of Israel, should they reject what God is doing in the Messiah Jesus. The language of imminent judgment occupies a significant place within Matthew’s Gospel, because it occupied a significant place in Jesus’ teaching.

We might add other elements, but these will suffice for an initial orientation. As Stephen Westerholm argues, “Although Matthew has written an inexhaustible text, readers from the first century until our own have derived the same basic message from his Gospel: Jesus…is a fit object of devotion and discipleship.”[18] Matthew writes so that we will know why this is the case.


A Proposed Outline of Matthew’s Narrative


  1. The Birth and Preparation of Jesus, Messiah (1:1-4:16)
    1. Birth and Childhood (1-2)
    2. Preparation for Jesus’ Public Ministry (3-4:16)
  2. Public Ministry in and around Galilee (4:17-16:20)
    1. Introduction to Public Ministry (4:17-25)
    2. Jesus’ Teaching on Life in the Kingdom (5:1-7:29) [Discourse: Sermon on the Mount]
    3. A Selection of Jesus’ Miracles (8:1-9:34)
    4. Parallel Ministry of the Disciples (9:35-11:1) [Discourse:  Discipleship]
    5. Varying Response to Jesus’ Messianic Activity (11:2 – 12:50)
    6. Jesus’ Teaching in Parables (13) [Discourse:  Parables]
    7. Varying Responses to Jesus’ Teaching and Miracles (13:54-16:20)
  3. Private Ministry in Galilee: Preparing the Disciples (16:21-18:35)
    1. Teaching on Jesus’ Mission (16:21-17:27)
    2. Teaching on Relationships among the Disciples (18:1-19:2) [Discourse:  the Messiah’s Assembly]
  4. Ministry in Judaea (19:3-25:2)
    1. On the Way to Jerusalem (19:1-20:34)
    2. Arrival in Jerusalem (21:1-22)
    3. Controversies with Jewish Leaders (21:23 – 23:39) [Discourse: Woes against the Religious Leaders]
    4. Jesus’ Teaching about the Future (24:1 – 26:2) [Discourse: Destruction of Jerusalem and the Return of the Son of Man]
  5. The Death and Resurrection of Jesus (26:3-28:20)
    1. Preparation for the Passion (26:3-46)
    2. The Arrest and Trial of Jesus (26:47-27:26)
    3. The Crucifixion of Jesus (27:27-56)
    4. The Burial and Resurrection of Jesus (27:57-28:20)[19]

[1] “Gospel” refers to a written narrative that presents the story of Jesus; “gospel” refers to the oral message of salvation that early Christians presented after the resurrection of Jesus.

[2] Richard Burridge, What are the Gospels? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004, second edition), 212. “Bioi” were a form of literature common in the first century of the Greco-Roman period. They focused on significant figures and the writers wrote with various motives in mind.

[3] The term “Matthew” refers to the person who wrote this Gospel and sometimes to the Gospel narrative that bears this name. Whether one of the apostles named Matthew composed it is certainly the view in the patristic literature, but contemporary scholars question whether this is the case.

[4] Also Burridge, 241.

[5] Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 5.

[6] The absence of Rabbinic parallels to Gospels is remarkable. If the materials we find in the Gospels circulated like Rabbinic stories, aphorisms and parables, then why did the Gospels emerge as connected narratives focused around Jesus, but nothing similar emerges in Rabbinic Judaism devoted to other Jewish figures? Jacob Neusner also argues that there are no Tannaitic Parallels to Gospels. The Rabbinic anecdotes centre around teaching and the proposed Q materials and the so-called Gospel of Thomas are more like these Rabbinic materials. But Q and Thomas are not βίοι. The primary reason is that the Gospels focus upon the uniqueness of the hero and this adds the creative element necessary to produce a βίος.

[7] Burridge, 304.

[8] Ibid.

[9] R. Bauckham. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

[10] George M. Soares Prabhu, The Formula Quotations in the Infancy Narrative of Matthew (Analecta Biblica 63; Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1976), 61.

[11] Three of these relate to prophecies spoken through Jeremiah (2 Chron. 36:21, 22 and Ezra 1:1) in the context of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile. Is this significant considering the oracles of Jesus that he spoke against Jerusalem and Matthew’s focus upon the theme of judgment?

[12] R. T. France, Matthew. Evangelist and Teacher (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004), 173-174.

[13] Krister Stendahl, The School of St. Matthew and Its Use of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968).

[14] Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (Bloomsbury Academic, 2000).

[15] Josephus claims that he wrote his “Jewish Wars” first in Aramaic and then wrote it again in Greek. However, if this true, then he did not create a Greek “translation” of the Aramaic, but wrote it as a Greek composition. Bellum I.3. As translated in the Loeb edition “by translating (μεταλάβων – transferring, interchanging”) into Greek the account which I previously composed in my vernacular tongue and sent to the barbarians in the interior.”

[16] C.F.D. Moule, “St. Matthew’s Gospel: Some Neglected Features,” Studia Evangelica 2(1964), 98.

[17] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew. NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 23-29.

[18] Stephen Westerholm, Understanding Matthew. The Early Christian Worldview of the First Gospel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 14.

[19] Taken largely from R. T. France, Matthew. Tyndale New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 63-67. There is some borrowing from Turner’s outline (David Turner, Matthew. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008).