The Gospel According to St. Matthew

Today, 21st September 2012, is the feast of St. Matthew. In honour of one of my favourite Evangelists (I have four favourites all together), I thought I would post some detail about the Gospel he authored, including my opinion about its origins, audience, characteristics and its context within the Synoptic problem.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Commissioned by the French Cardinal Matteo Contarelli, the canvas hangs in Contarelli chapel altar in the church of the French congregation San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome,

Before I began studying, I thought I knew that all the Gospels were written by people other than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, hundreds of years after Jesus' death and Resurrection. It was inspiring to embark on a detailed study of all the sources which led me to a position where I now am sure that this is not the case. Matthew’s Gospel, the first book of the New Testament, is held by the Church’s tradition (dating from the second century) to be the first of the Gospels:
"...let us remember that the tradition of the ancient Church agrees in attributing to Matthew the paternity of the First Gospel. This had already begun with Bishop Papias of Hierapolis in Frisia, in about the year 130.
He writes: "Matthew set down the words (of the Lord) in the Hebrew tongue and everyone interpreted them as best he could" (in Eusebius of Cesarea, Hist. Eccl. III, 39, 16).
Eusebius, the historian, adds this piece of information: "When Matthew, who had first preached among the Jews, decided also to reach out to other peoples, he wrote down the Gospel he preached in his mother tongue; thus, he sought to put in writing, for those whom he was leaving, what they would be losing with his departure" (ibid., III, 24, 6).
The Gospel of Matthew written in Hebrew or Aramaic is no longer extant, but in the Greek Gospel that we possess we still continue to hear, in a certain way, the persuasive voice of the publican Matthew, who, having become an Apostle, continues to proclaim God's saving mercy to us. And let us listen to St Matthew's message, meditating upon it ever anew also to learn to stand up and follow Jesus with determination." 
It is thought by scholars of the last hundred years to have been written originally in Aramaic about 70 A.D. Although some suggest that a good case can be made for an earlier date: perhaps as early as 43 A.D., just ten years after Jesus' death and resurrection. Although Matthew’s Gospel is longer than Mark’s as well as containing information absent from Mark’s (e.g. the infancy narratives) it does follow Mark almost without exception in parts (chapters 3-4 and 12-28, though with interpolation of considerable additional material) and often with very similar use of words (e.g. 15:32-39; 16:24-28). Since it seems unlikely that an eyewitness would rely on the account of someone who wasn’t, many scholars, like Schweizer, Kingsbury and Senior conclude that Matthew was acquainted with the Gospel of Mark. The tradition of Clement of Alexandria in contrast, implies that Mark was written after Matthew and Luke. This just serves to remind us that although the two source theory is currently dominant, it is just a theory and no doubt scholars will continue to occupy themselves with the riddle of the Synoptic Problem for hundreds of years to come. What is most important and relevant is that we recognise that the evangelists were genuine authors; adding to their source material their own theological perspective and writing with their own individual literary skill.

In considering Matthew as a genuine author, many scholars have posited that this Gospel should follow a structured order. Understanding these structures can provide some idea of the background of the author and the intended audience of the Gospel.

Benjamin Bacon suggested a Pentateuchal theory, which highlighted the boundaries in the Gospel between discourse sections and narrative sections. This discovery led Bacon to surmise that Matthew was modelled after the Pentateuch and that the author of Matthew had attempted to portray Jesus as the new Moses. Hubert Frankemölle also realised the Old Testament structure in Matthew and linked it specifically to Deuteronomy. For Frankemölle, the Deuteronomic Moses giving a set of farewell speeches to an Israel on the brink of a new future had strong parallels to a Matthean Jesus doing the same thing for the Church. 

Dale Allison also began from Bacon’s theory, developing the idea of the alternative between discourse and narrative as being the key to understanding Matthew’s structure. This structure accentuates Matthew’s focus on Jesus calling the community to gain salvation through imitation of His virtue.

Peter Ellis agrees with Bacon and others regarding the sequence of narrative and discourse being an important part of Matthew’s framework, but emphasises the Evangelist’s meticulous organisation and chiastic patterns (where key words in a sentence or paragraph are arranged in the order A-B, B-A as in Mt. 16:25 for example). Ellis sees an intricate symmetry in Matthew with the centre point being Jesus’ parable discourse of chapter 13. John Paul Heil proposed a variation on this chiastic pattern in his book The Death and Resurrection of Jesus: A Narrative Critical Reading of Matthew where later events are anticipated. For example the announcement in the infancy narrative that Jesus is the Christ anticipates His messianic work and the Jewish opposition to His ministry anticipates His passion story.

My own opinion is that in many ways this sort of attempt to reduce the Evangelist’s work into some sort of explainable model is typical of the current running through western scholarship. All these structures reveal interesting features of the Gospel and point us to conclusions about who the author of Matthew was, who he was writing for and what he was trying to get across, although it seems highly unlikely that the Gospel was written according to a blueprint.

The chiasm, use of parallels (e.g. Mt 7:24-27) and of strophe (e.g. Mt 5:3-10; 6:9-13), demonstrate the author’s familiarity with Semitic styles of writing. Matthew also displays a poetic method of teaching that includes repetition and the responding to a question with a counter question (for an example see Mt 15:1-3, the parallel in Mk 7:5-6 does not have the counter question), which is typically rabbinical in style. Matthew is concerned with history also. He starts with a genealogy (Mt 1:2-18) that demonstrates Jesus’ ties with the history of Israel; constantly refers to the Old Testament and explains how Jesus fulfilled the promises given to Israel. Matthew’s Gospel ends with the risen Christ giving his apostles a mission that will take them to the ends of the earth, and last until the end of time. In this way, Matthew encompasses the whole of salvation history.

The Old Testament references, or fulfilment quotations, span the entire Gospel and, as they are a unique feature of Matthew’s Gospel, can tell us much about the origin and purpose of Matthew’s narrative. Robert Gundry, in his work The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew’s Gospel, with Special Reference to the Messianic Hope studied the form of the Old Testament quotations in the Gospel to see if he could discover whether they were taken from the Hebrew version or the Septuagint. His conclusions, that the Gospel uses a mixed form of free interpretive renderings of biblical quotations and stories, led him to argue for the apostle Matthew as being the author of the Gospel. The style of Old Testament quotations is exactly what would be expected for the trilingual milieu of Palestine in the first century, thus Gundry has Matthew, the apostle, an educated publican, the “note-taker” among Jesus band of disciples, recording events and the discourses of Jesus, even the interpretation of the Old Testament Jesus applied to himself and his messianic mission. The Gospel we have today depended on Mark (this accounts for the presence of Septuagintal Old Testament quotations brought over from Mark) but had at its core raw material provided by the tax collector Matthew. 

Matthew’s Old Testament quotations address all of Israel’s hopes for salvation and place Jesus as the royal Messiah, the Isaian Servant, the Son of Man from Daniel 7:11-14, the Shepherd of Israel. Jesus saves us from sin (1:21), raises the dead (11:5) and gives rest to the weary (11:28-29) thus fulfilling the role of YHWH himself. Matthew’s use of Isaiah in particular is pertinent if one considers the prophet’s message of salvation to Israel and the fact that he made a particular point about the failure of his mission: much of Matthew’s Gospel deals with Israel’s rejection of Jesus. (You can find more detail on the connection in my Sunday Scripture reflection on the book of Isaiah here). 

David Howell adds to these ideas about the quotations, arriving at the conclusion that they also represent an appeal outside of the narrative world of the Gospel to the authority of God through the Old Testament. The dispersal of these quotations, particularly dense in concentration at the beginning of the Gospel, serves to introduce the reader to the narrative world of Matthew. It illustrates to the reader that Jesus’ life and mission fulfil God’s promises in the Old Testament. Jesus is the embodiment of the hope of Israel, the greater Son of David, a greater Moses, the representative Israelite like the prophets Jeremiah and Elisha; the true just Sufferer of Israel, Jesus is the Torah, the Word of God in person. Indeed, this conviction about the identity and meaning of Jesus’ life and mission is intrinsically linked to every aspect of Matthew’s theology:
“Matthew’s interpretation of the Old Testament scriptures is controlled by his conviction about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah” ~Senior, D., Op cit., p.74. 
Matthew’s salvation history also pivots around the Jesus event. Matthew undertakes to develop the idea of the consequences of hearing the Gospel message. He develops a systematic Gospel which expounds the themes of how to live in the Church.

From the evidence, it would appear that Matthew was written by a Jewish Christian, perhaps with some rabbinical training, and certainly knowledge of Sacred Scripture. Brown points out that the majority view relates Matthew to Antioch. Although the interplay of Jewish and Gentile interests is complex, evidence in the Gospel as discussed above, coupled with the fact that Matthew leaves out the explanation of Jewish customs in Mark 7:3-4 point to the Gospel being aimed at a once strongly Jewish Christian Church that had become increasingly Gentile. This also fits with the history of Christianity at Antioch.


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