Chapter 8: The Gospel of Matthew

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter 8: The Gospel of Matthew

The Problem of the Attribution to Matthew

The tradition that the apostle Matthew wrote our first gospel, or an Aramaic gospel of which the Greek is a translation, went unchallenged from the middle of the second century to the nineteenth century, but can no longer be defended with any confidence. The main reason for this lies in the fact, now generally accepted, that the first gospel is not a translation from the Aramaic, but was composed originally in Greek on the basis of at least two written Greek sources, Mark and Q. The comparatively few narrative additions made by the evangelist include some more suggestive of legendary accretion than the pen of an apostle (e.g. 17: 24-27, 27: 51-53), although much of the teaching material peculiar to Matthew is universally recognised as of high value.

An examination of the earliest tradition that has been preserved on Matthew as a writer gives a possible clue as to how the tradition arose of his authorship of the first gospel. Papias has recorded an enigmatic statement that --

Matthew compiled the Logia in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted (the Greek word may mean ‘translated’) them as he was able.

Most scholars are agreed that ‘Hebrew’ here probably means

‘Aramaic’, the everyday language of Jews in the first century A.D, but opinion is very divided about the meaning of ‘Logia’ which is sometimes rendered as ‘oracles’ or ‘sacred utterances’. The most widely accepted view is that these ‘oracles’ were sayings of Jesus, with perhaps occasional stories about him; some critics, however, hold that they were Old Testament prophecies about Jesus, of which Matthew made a collection. There is a further division of opinion as to whether these ‘oracles’ needed interpretation, to apply them to particular circumstances, or whether they were translated into Greek by different people. This question is further discussed in connection with the question of the sources behind the gospel.

Two explanations have been suggested for the transference of this tradition to the first gospel in its present form. It may be that one of the sayings-sources behind the gospel is Matthew’s collection of Logia, and that the name has been transferred from the part to the whole. There is also evidence that the first gospel was very early translated into Aramaic, and it is possible that such a gospel, which may well have circulated at first anonymously, was soon wrongly identified with the Aramaic document which Matthew was known to have written. It is significant that little seems to have been known of Matthew as a person, and that such information as the tradition gives about the writing of his gospel is clearly conjecture spun out of his apostleship and the fact that he wrote in ‘Hebrew’. Indeed it has even been suggested that the name ‘Matthew’ was attached to the gospel because in Mt. 9:9 the taxcollector is called Matthew instead of Levi, son of Alphaeus, as in Mk. 2:14; such a reason, however, hardly seems adequate by itself to explain the attribution of the gospel.

The Character of The Gospel

If Luke’s gospel is essentially an attempt to improve and supplement Mark as an historical account of Jesus’ ministry for the benefit of Gentile Christian readers, Matthew’s gospel is an attempt to improve and supplement Mark as a record of Jesus’ teaching and as a testimony to his Messiahship for the guidance of Jewish Christians. Matthew adds to the narrative of Mark, which he shortens but reproduces in essentials, only an account of Jesus’ birth and infancy, a few incidents from Q, a couple of other stories, a few variations in Mark’s narrative, and a Resurrection appearance in Galilee; some of this material is of doubtful historical value, and the author of the first gospel seems to have written at a time when oral tradition in his community could no longer supplement the Marcan history with much of real importance.

On the other hand the first gospel is peculiarly rich in teaching, and has largely for this reason been throughout the centuries the most popular of all gospels with Christian readers. Matthew had a teaching source or sources of great value, whose material he has for the most part combined with that of Mark and Q to form five great discourses, each of which ends with a formula ‘and it came to pass when Jesus ended those words, etc.’

Mt. 5: 3-7: 27 The Sermon on the Mount

10:5-42 The Mission Discourse

8:3-52 Parables

18: 3-35 On a variety of subjects

24:3-25:46 Eschatological Discourse

(23:1-39 Woes against the Scribes and Pharisees forms another discourse, but here the closing formula is missing.)

These discourses are clearly composed by the author of the gospel, who sets them in suitable places in the Marcan framework and conflates his various sources with great skill. In the same way he has incorporated most of his remaining teaching material from Q and his special source or sources in other shorter discourses.

The purpose of this editorial collection of the teaching of Jesus was a double one. It had a great practical advantage in making the gospel also a handbook on Christian life and conduct, and there are many signs that this was in Matthew’s mind (e.g. 6:1-18, 18: 15-17). It also enabled him to represent Jesus as a new lawgiver, whose law was the true consummation of the law given to Moses (5:17-20), just as in his narrative he stressed his Messiahship in Jewish terms.

The whole gospel is written with the aim of establishing this Messiahship in terms which would have a special appeal to Jewish Christian readers. In the very first verse (1:1) Jesus is the ‘Son of David, the Son of Abraham’, and the Messianic title ‘Son of David’ is repeatedly given to him by those who believe in him. A series of fulfillment’s of Old Testament prophecies accompany his birth, infancy, and ministry. There is a special stress on Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom (usually ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’ in Matthew as a periphrasis for the ‘Kingdom of God’) and its eschatological aspect.

This preoccupation with Jesus’ Messiahship has led to the blurring in Matthew’s gospel of the outline of the Marcan framework. Matthew allows himself considerable liberties with the order of Marcan incidents, and, in his anxiety to stress the Messiahship of Jesus and the impression made by Jesus on his hearers, he has often amended Mark’s narrative in such a way as to obliterate the distinctions drawn by Mark in the stages of Jesus’ revelation of his Sonship. Thus at his baptism John the Baptist recognises him and has to be persuaded to ‘fulfill all righteousness’ by baptising him (3:14-15), and Jesus is made to proclaim his Sonship openly and to be recognised by some men as Messiah quite early in his ministry, e.g. 9:27, 14:33.

The Sources of The Gospel

Of the additions made to Mark’s narrative of Matthew by far the most extensive is his account of the birth and infancy of Jesus (Chapters one and two); these chapters are probably put together by Matthew himself on the basis of a genealogy and a series of stories, most of which are presented as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies (1:23, 2:6, 15, 18, 23). The stories are quite independent of those told by Luke, and contain features which make it probable that much of their content is legend rather than history.

It is noteworthy that Matthew does not appear to have any continuous written narrative source other than Mark, and that his additions to Mark are either single incidents, e.g. the Temple Tribute (17:24-27) and Judas’ death (27:3-10), or imply the existence of a narrative similar to the Marcan one in which they are embedded, e.g. John’s Protest at the Baptism (3:14-15), Peter Walking on the Water (14:28-33) and a number of additions to the Narrative of the Passion and Resurrection (27: 19, 24-25, 51-53, 62-66, 28:2-4, 8-15). Even Matthew’s Resurrection Appearance gives the impression of being founded on the promise of Mk. 14:28, 16:7 and an oral tradition that had preserved few details (cf. ‘but some doubted’, 28: 17).

Most of these narrative additions of Matthew are of doubtful historical value. It would seem that the Marcan account of Jesus’ ministry was the only written one known to the community in which Matthew lived, but that it had circulated long enough for a number of additions and variations to have grown up, which Matthew in turn incorporates in his gospel. That Matthew should have had so little of real value to add suggests that he wrote at a time when the first generation of disciples were dead and the catastrophes of the Jewish War of A.D. 66-73 had interrupted the channels of genuine oral reminiscence. It also makes it unlikely that he wrote in one of the larger Christian churches like that of Antioch, where much good information to supplement Mark’s narrative must still have been available long after A.D. 70.

In striking contrast to the poverty of Matthew’s narrative additions is the richness of the teaching material to be found only in his gospel. In view of what has been said above it is probable that he drew much of this material from a written source or sources. The reconstruction of such sources can only be conjectural, but there are some grounds for thinking that the substance of two sources at least can still be discerned in spite of Matthew’s skillful editorial conflation.

The first of these sources seems to have been a list of Old Testament ‘Testimonies’ to Jesus. Matthew himself normally quotes the Old Testament from the Greek LXX (LXX = The Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. [Latin septuaginta = 70] from a tradition that 70 translators took part in the work.) version, and when he is using Mark he preserves Mark’s versions of Old Testament quotations or brings them slightly nearer to the LXX text. There are, however, in Matthew’s gospel eleven quotations, 1:23, 2:6, 15, 18, 23, 4:15-16, 8:17, 12:18-21, 13:35, 21:5, 27:9, which show significant variations from the LXX text and approach more or less closely to the Hebrew text of the Old Testament (allowance has to be made in some of them, e.g. 1:23, 12:21, for Matthew’s editorial revision). Each of these quotations is introduced by the formula ‘. . . that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying’, or by a similar phrase; they are attached to short accounts of incidents connected with Jesus’ birth and infancy (1:23, 2:6, 15, 18, 23), with his settlement at Capernaum (4:15-16), his healing powers (8: 17), his meekness (12: 18-21), his teaching in parables (13: 35), his entry into Jerusalem (21:5), and with the death of Judas (27: 9); in the process of incorporation by Matthew this original context has sometimes been disturbed or enlarged.

Some have seen in this list of ‘Testimonies’, the original collection of Logia, which Papias ascribes to Matthew with accompanying ‘interpretations’, but against this view is the artificiality of some of the ‘fulfillments’, e.g. 2:15, 18, 23. It is more probable that the list represents the work of a Christian of a later generation, who searched his Hebrew Bible for texts which would fit some of the details of Jesus’ life as it was known to him.

Far more valuable is the collection of Jesus’ sayings that Matthew utilises in the Sermon on the Mount and perhaps elsewhere. It has already been noted that Matthew and Luke sometimes agree so closely in their account of Jesus’ teaching as to make it certain that they both used the Greek document Q. There are also a number of places where they give versions of Jesus’ teaching that are in general agreement but show substantial variations in wording. This phenomenon has sometimes been interpreted as showing the continued influence of oral tradition, or as indicating that Matthew used a different and fuller edition of Q. It is perhaps more easy to explain this ‘agreement with variations’ by supposing that Matthew had a second written collection of Jesus, sayings that largely overlapped Q.

In favour of this theory is the high value that Matthew seems to have attributed to this source, and the fact that the first half of his first great discourse, the Sermon on the Mount (5:3-6:18), only occasionally shows signs of agreement with Q, while the second half of the discourse (6: 19-7:27) is for the most part clearly composed of material drawn from Q. The first half of the discourse, moreover, has a formal arrangement -- 7 Beatitudes, 2 parallel similes of Salt and Light, the New Law and the Old under 5 heads, Murder, Adultery, Swearing, Retaliation, Love of One’s Enemies; 3 parallel instructions on Almsgiving, Prayer, and Fasting. There is no such ordered arrangement of the Q material, and while Matthew clearly adopts editorial arrangements and formulas in other parts of his gospel, e.g. in the artificial arrangement of the Genealogy in 3 sections, each of 14 names, it would be curious if he had himself arranged the material in the first half of the Sermon on the Mount and then given up the attempt in the rest of the discourse. It is at least possible that the arrangement here goes back in part to that of a written source which he employed, although allowance must be made for some editorial work and conflation with Q material by Matthew.

Whether this source, if it existed in written form, was more extensive and was used elsewhere by Matthew, can only be conjectured. It is perhaps significant that in his account of Jesus’ denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees (23) Matthew appears to be conflating Q with other material, some of which is very reminiscent of the first half of the Sermon on the Mount (compare 23:2 with 5:17-18, 23:5-7 with 6:5, 23:16-22 with 5:23, 33-37); there is also a sevenfold series of denunciations, and a repetition of the formula, ‘Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites’, which suggests that Matthew is here following the arrangement of a source other than Q, which in Luke’s parallel section (Lk. 11:39 ff.) is differently assembled.

If these two sections of Matthew are largely dependent on a written source, it is apparently an early and valuable one, overlapping Q but containing also much material not found elsewhere, and some which seems to be known in much the same form to James in his epistle (compare 5:33-37 with James 5:12, 5:19 with James 2:10, 5:9 with James 3:18). The teaching is more suited for Jewish Christians than that of Q, and lays stress on the keeping of the Law (5:17-20, 23:2) as well as referring to the Temple and its sacrifices (5:23-24, 23:16-21). It is even possible -- although it must be remembered that the very existence of this source as a written document can be only a matter of guesswork -- that this source was the apostle Matthew’s collection of Logia, and that it provides the answer to the riddle of Matthew’s connection with the gospel. In this case Papias’ ‘interpretation’ may be taken as ‘translation’, but more probably means that each man, as is still the case, had to apply the teaching to his own life and circumstances.

There is little to guide us in determining the sources from which come the remaining sayings and parables peculiar to this gospel. Three passages, however, are of special importance and deserve individual mention.

In the discourse which Matthew places at the sending out of the Twelve (10:1-42) he has conflated material from Mark and Q with sayings found only in this gospel. In 10:5-6, 23, we read --

Go not into any way of the Gentiles, and enter not into any city of the Samaritans; but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. . . . But when they persecute you in this city, flee into the next; for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone through the cities of Israel, till the Son of Man be come.

These words are clearly not invented by the evangelist, although he echoes them in his account of the healing of the Canaanitish woman’s daughter (15:24); he is emphatic in his representation of the universality of the gospel (e.g. 10:18, 24:14, 28:19) and he must have drawn them from an older source. Dr. Schweitzer (The Quest of the Historical Jesus, pp. 283 ff., 357 ff.) has seen in them Jesus’ mistaken expectation of the almost immediate coming of the Son of Man and the end of the age, but such an interpretation is in conflict with the general tenor of Jesus’ teaching. There is no need to doubt that Jesus may deliberately have limited his disciples’ first mission to Jewish territory, but the verse 23 may well be an edited version of his words out of their true context; it seems unlikely that Jesus would have expected his disciples to meet with persecution on their first short mission.

In following Mark’s account of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi Matthew has inserted three verses (16:17-19) which contain a special promise to Peter of the keys of the kingdom of Heaven. These verses have played a significant role in controversies between Christian churches and it has been disputed whether Jesus in fact spoke such words. They are manifestly introduced here by Matthew himself on the basis of tradition, and he shows elsewhere a particular interest in Peter, although at times he associates him with incidents which have legendary features (e.g. Mt. 14:28-31, 17:24-27). It is perhaps significant that the word ‘church’ occurs in the gospels only twice, here and in Mt. 18:17, a passage where the words of Jesus as given by Matthew do not ring true.

The discourse in Mt.18 contains material from Mark and other sources, much of it clearly of great value. In the section 15-17, however, there are traces of editorial work which has distorted or replaced Jesus’ original teaching. A rule is given for the treatment of a brother who has sinned against another. If he does not hear the offended person, witnesses are to be taken to hear his words; ‘if he refuse to hear them, tell it to the Church; and if he refuse to hear the Church also, let him be unto thee as the Gentile and the publican’. It is only necessary to compare these last words with the reproach levelled at Jesus by the Pharisees when he dined with his new disciple, Matthew, and with Jesus’ answer (Mt. 9:11-12), to understand that in 18:15-17 ecclesiastical practice has been read back into Jesus’ mouth.

The Date and Place of the writing of the Gospel

The use of Mark and an apparent reference (22:7) to the destruction of Jerusalem imply a date for the gospel of Matthew later than A.D. 70; on the other hand the gospel is probably quoted by Ignatius (c. A.D. 110) and by the unknown author of ‘The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’, a document thought by many to have been composed in Syria about the end of the first century or in the first half of the second century. A date between A.D. 80 and 100 would fit the internal evidence of the gospel itself, and would account both for the growth of legendary accretions and for the absence of reliable tradition, other than that provided by written sources, about the course of Jesus’ ministry.

Antioch has been suggested as the place of writing,(E.g. by Streeter, op. cit., pp 500 ff., and by McNeile, Introduction to the New Testament, p. 38.) but reasons have been given above for thinking that Matthew was written in a community where the tradition of Jesus’ acts was less trustworthy than would have been the case in a church so closely linked in early days with the mother church of Jerusalem. On the other hand the early use of the gospel by Ignatius and the author of ‘The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’ makes the writing of the gospel in a remoter district of Syria more probable. We know next to nothing of the coming of Christianity to Syria, outside Antioch, but it is known that Christianity was well established in many Syrian cities by the middle of the next century, and there are signs that it was among the large Jewish population in these cities that Christianity first took root.