Saturday, November 26, 2016

Matthew’s Gospel: A Brief Introduction

Readings from the Gospel according to Matthew are the great majority of our Gospel readings in Year A of our lectionary (cycle of readings). The exception to this is during most of Lent and Easter, when John’s Gospel is traditionally read. So what do we know about Matthew’s Gospel as a whole?

Most scholars date Matthew from the closing decades of the 1st century c.e. (certainly after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70 c.e.) and written somewhere in Palestine or Syria where there was a significant Jewish population.

Whether the apostle Matthew wrote this Gospel is a mystery. The Gospel itself does not name its writer, and none of the earliest manuscripts has a title mentioning Matthew. We can say with some certainty that the writer is himself a Jew who did not understand his following of Christ to be anything but a movement within Judaism.

Matthew’s primary purpose is to argue that after the destruction of the Temple, which had been the heart of Judaism, something else had to become central. That something for mainstream Judaism came to be the Law, study of which was led by rabbis. For Matthew, however, that something was actually someone, Jesus of Nazareth. This means Matthew’s original audience was Israel, though an Israel which had become expansive. It seems clear from the Gospel that Gentiles were becoming part of Matthew’s community, which would have been a point of great contention with their fellow Jews.

The heart of Matthew’s Gospel may be found in three places. First, at 13:52:

Every scribe who has become a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure new things and old things.

This verse is unique to Matthew, and neatly sums up his commitment to Judaism, although in a new form as a disciple of Jesus. Another is at 5:17, in the Sermon on the Mount, again unique to Matthew:

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy, but to fulfill.

Jesus is the correct interpreter and enactor of the Law.

As another sign of his Jewish heritage, Matthew loves quoting the Hebrew Scriptures, often with the phrase, “this was to fulfill what had been spoken…” Matthew quotes Scripture at least 13 times. It is essential for him that Jesus is the fulfillment of Judaism.

There are two difficult characteristics of Matthew’s Gospel. First of all, he is very hard on the Jews who opposed Jesus, and continue to oppose his community. The words at Jesus’ trial, “his blood be on us and upon are children” are uniquely his. Second, Matthew’s Jesus has a distinctly apocalyptic worldview, one in which the community lives always under the threat of judgment.  “Where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” is, again, a saying from the lips of Jesus only in this Gospel.

Yet there is also incredible welcome in Matthew, both for Jew and Gentile, from the magi at Jesus’ birth (2:1) to the Canaanite woman (15:22) and the Roman centurions (27:54) and Joseph of Arimathea at his death (27:57). And there is the well-known saying of Jesus, which is the third heart of this Gospel (11:28-30):

Come to me, all you who are weary or carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Jesus is also revealed in Matthew as “Emmanuel,” “God with us” (1:23), and it is with the implications of this truth that Matthew most wants us to wrestle. The culmination of this new reality (prior to Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection) is the great parable of the Sheep and the Goats (unique to Matthew) with its ringing, “As you did it to the least of these you did it to me.”

One other unique feature of Matthew is that he is the only Gospel writer to use the word ecclesia which we translate as “church,’ a term that will become vitally important in the non-Gospel portion of the Christian Testament. This use comes with some explicit instructions on how to live together in this ecclesia.  Its first use is at 16:18, in regards to Peter, “the rock on whom I will build my church,” and then in 18:15-21. It is possible that, at least among the synoptic Gospels, Matthew uniquely comes out of the experience of a community rather than a particular person.

Select Bibliography

These are commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew that I have found helpful. They do not all share the same perspective, but each has opened the Gospel up for me in a different way. I begin with what I believe to be the best commentary currently on the market and then the rest in alphabetical order by author.

Harrington, Daniel J., S.J. The Gospel of Matthew (Sacra Pagina series).  Liturgical Press, 1991.

Byrne, Brendan.  Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church Today. Liturgical Press, 2004.

Card, Michael. Matthew: The Gospel of Identity (Biblical Imagination Series). IVP Books, 2013.

Jarvis, Cynthia A. and Johnson, E. Elizabeth, eds. Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew (2 vols).  Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.

Wright, Tom. Matthew for Everyone (2 vols).  Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

Yieh, John Y.H.  Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel according to Matthew (Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars series).  Morehouse Publishing, 2012.

Helpful Remembrances in Reading the Gospels

  1. Each of the Gospels is “according to” meaning they came from a particular author writing out of a particular context using sayings and stories he collected, that were mostly oral in transmission. In other words, they are interpretation to begin with.
  2. The various English translations are just that, translations from the original Greek text, although “texts” would be a better word, since all the earliest manuscripts are fragments. Translation is a very tricky business, and if you are studying a book or particular passage, it is helpful to have a couple (at least) different translations around.

    The difference between a translation and a paraphrase should be noted. Translations are done from the original language, using the multiplicity of sources available by a team of scholars. Paraphrases generally take the English text and make it more colloquial, involving a great deal more interpretation than translations. The English translation most in use is the New Revised Standard. Other good English translations are The New Jerusalem Bible, The Revised English Bible, and the New American Bible. The New International Version is popular but is more interpretive than the others mentioned. The best paraphrase is probably The Message, which is the work of a single person, Eugene Peterson.
  3. The chapter and verse numbers are not original. Various schemes have been used through the centuries. The current divisions date from the 13th century from Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, although they did not appear in print until 1560 in an English version, The Geneva Bible.
  4. The predominate opinion among biblical scholars is that Mark’s of the oldest of the Gospels. Matthew and Luke clearly both use Mark as their primary sources, but also have some other common source (usually referred to as “Q”), and some unique material. John is an entirely different way of telling the story with very little in common with the others.

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