Chapter 9: The Gospel of Matthew

A Historical Introduction to the New Testament
by Robert M. Grant

Chapter 9: The Gospel of Matthew

From the time of Irenaeus (c. 180) the Gospel of Matthew has been regarded as the earliest of the four gospels to be written, probably because of a theory of development according to which Jewish elements in the Christian books arc regarded as prior to universal-Hellenistic ones. In any event, Matthew is the first gospel for which we have fairly conclusive external evidence. Ignatius, writing about 110, almost certainly alludes to it in one letter (Philad. 8, 2) and makes use of the birth story in another (Eph. 19, 2-3). II Clement, a Roman document of about 140, refers to Matthew 9:13 as scripture, and Barnabas, about the same time, uses Matthew 22:14 in the same way. If we date the Didache early, as we probably should, we find frequent references and allusions to Matthew in it.

It may be that Papias, writing early in the second century, refers to an earlier form of our gospel when he says that ‘Matthew compiled the oracles in a Hebrew dialect, and each one interpreted (translated?) them as best he could’ (Eusebius, H.E. 3, 39, 17). This statement seems to imply the existence of various Greek versions in Papias’s time; our gospel would then be one of these. We do not know exactly what ‘oracles’ means; it usually is used of Old Testament prophecies understood in relation to Jesus, but by extension it may also have included the words of Jesus himself:, or the fulfillment of the prophecies. Against Papias, it has been claimed, however, that Matthew cannot be a translation from Hebrew or Aramaic (even though some of the Old Testament quotations seem to have come from the Hebrew Bible), especially since it is written in a clear Greek which reflects an advance over Mark’s style and language; there is a play on the Greek words ‘kopsontai’ and ‘opsontai’ in Matthew 24:30. This claim neglects the wide variety to be found in the work of translators, and the play on Greek words can be balanced by Matthew 1:21: ‘you shall call his name Jesus, for it is he who will save his people from their sins -- ‘Jesus’ and ‘save’ are related in Hebrew (‘ieshua’ -- ‘ieshoa’).

Vocabulary and Style

Matthew contains a total of 18,300 words and uses a vocabulary of 1,690 words; he is the only New Testament writer to use 112 of these (of which seventy-six occur in the Septuagint). Among his favourite expressions are these: mention of God as ‘Father’ forty-live times (compared with five in Mark, seventeen in Luke) -- including ‘our Father’, ‘your Father’, ‘the Father in the heavens’, ‘the heavenly Father’ -- and of the kingdom as ‘the kingdom of the heavens’ ‘fulfil’ (in regard to prophecy), ‘righteousness, hypocrite’ ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. In addition, there are some words which are less significant theologically but equally characteristic of his vocabulary: verbs of motion such as ‘withdraw’ (‘anachorein’) and ‘come to’ or (‘approach’ (‘proserchesthai’), and favourite connectives like ‘then’ ‘(‘tote’, ninety times), ‘thence’ (‘ekeithen’), and ‘just as’ (‘hosper’).

Less significant, but rather striking, is his repetition of ‘formulas’ such as ‘from then he began’ (4:17, 16:21), ‘do not suppose that I came’ (5:17, 10:34), ‘sons of the kingdom’ (8:12, 13:38), ‘to outer darkness’ (8:12, 22:13, 25:30), ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (10:6, 15:24). Special notice should be given to the formula, ‘He who has ears, let him hear’ (11:15,13:9,43) and the summaries of Jesus’ healings (4:23-4, 8:16, 9:35, 14:35) Matthew also likes to end sections of teaching with the expression, ‘And it happened when Jesus finished’ (these words, or equivalent) ; it occurs five times (7.28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1), perhaps as a reflection of the five books of Moses.

He arranges his materials rather systematically; thus his gospel begins with a listing of the fourteen generations from Abraham to David, the fourteen generations from David to the Babylonian captivity, and the fourteen generations from the Babylonian captivity to Jesus Christ (1:1-17). The sayings of Jesus are often arranged in groups of threes, fives and sevens.

It is thus all the more surprising when we find more than a dozen sayings of Jesus given twice, as well as four sections of narrative. Since almost all of the sayings are paralleled once in Mark (usually in the same context as in Mark), the most likely explanation is that when Matthew found them not only in Mark but also in some other source -- perhaps oral tradition -- he used them twice. It is possible that he had already written something like a gospel (Papias’s ‘compilation of dominical oracles’?) and then revised it completely by incorporating Mark in it.

The theory of Augustine that Mark is nothing but an abbreviation of Matthew is untenable because where the two gospels are parallel the style of Matthew is almost always superior to that of Mark. It is reasonable to suppose that Matthew improved upon Mark’s style, not that Mark perverted Matthew’s.

It has been claimed that the gospel cannot have been written by an apostle because of its use of Mark; an apostle cannot have relied upon a book written by one who was not an apostle. This claim does not seem very convincing. We cannot tell whether or not an apostle would have followed such a procedure. An apostle might have believed that Mark’s outline was largely correct but needed some revision and some supplementation. An apostle who proclaimed the gospel among Jews might have believed that Jewish Christianity, though ultimately only a part of Catholic Christianity, deserved more adequate representation than it found in Mark. But to say what he might or might not have thought is no substitute for examining the gospel itself.

The author of this gospel presents his portrait of Jesus in a manner not unlike that used by the rabbis. He is deeply concerned with the fulfillment of prophecy; indeed, most of what Jesus did he regards as taking place ‘that the scripture might be fulfilled’. Thus the virginal conception was foretold in Isaiah 7:14, the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem in Micah 5:2, the ‘massacre of the innocents’ in Jeremiah 31:15, and Jesus’ absence in Egypt in Hosea 11:1. Other events in the life of Jesus are given prophetic antecedents in the same way.

The call of Jesus from Egypt is related to another Old Testament analogy which the author finds significant. For him, Jesus is the new Moses. Just as Pharaoh tried to kill all the sons born to the Hebrews (Exod. 1:22), so Herod slew the little boys of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16); but both Moses and Jesus escaped (compare Matt. 2:14 with Exod. 2:15). After the king’s death both Moses and Jesus returned to the lands where they were to do God’s work (Exod. 2:23; 4:19; Matt. 2:19-20). From a mountain top both Moses and Jesus delivered the law which God has given them (Exod. 19 -- 20; Matt. 5.1). In the sermon on the mount Jesus states that he has come to ‘fulfil’ the law of Moses, from which no smallest fragment shall pass away until the end of the age (5:17-18).

To a considerable extent Matthew presents Christianity as a reformed and heightened Judaism. Whoever breaks one of the least of the commandments will be called least in the kingdom of heaven (5:19; Matthew substitutes ‘heaven’ for ‘God’); what is holy must not be given to dogs, i.e. outsiders (7:6); the disciples’ mission is not to gentiles or Samaritans but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (10:5-6; cf. 15:24). Those who take flight in the last times will be fortunate if the crisis does not come in the winter (as in Mark 13:18) or on a Sabbath (Matthew’s addition, 24:20).

Matthew’s model is the scribe to whom he refers (13:52), one who brings out of his treasure things new and old -- and arranges them systematically.

At the same time, Matthew’s interests are not solely rabbinical. He is concerned with Mark’s Greek style and often improves it as he copies from the earlier gospel. He also seems to have some definite theological interests as he sets forth his picture of Jesus and the disciples. For one thing, he omits nine Marcan references to the human indignation, anxiety or compassion of Jesus, and four references to his human inability to do what he wished. He modifies eleven instances of questions which Jesus asked. The best example of this tendency is to be found in Matthew 19:17 Mark 10:18) -- this has already been discussed. In addition, Matthew omits some of the passages in which Jesus rebuked his ignorant or faithless disciples. He regards the apostles (a word he uses as Mark did not) more highly than Mark did, and he represents Peter as receiving a special promise (16:17-19) and, like Jesus, walking on water (14:28-31).

Matthew is a Christian who knows that the gospel was intended not only for Jews but also for gentiles -- or rather, ‘to the Jew first, and also to the Greek’ (Rom. 1:16). The original ‘sons of the kingdom’ will be cast into outer darkness (8:12); the kingdom will be taken away from the Jews and given to a nation which brings forth its fruits (21:43); and at the crucifixion the whole people declares, ‘His blood be upon us and upon our children’ (27:25). The kingdom is for the Church. Matthew is the only evangelist who uses the word ‘ecclesia’ and he does so at two significant points. (1) In Mark, Peter’s confession (8:27) is at least partly rejected by Jesus. In Matthew (16:17-19) Jesus blesses Peter because his confession comes from God, not from man; and he declares that on the rock (either of the confession-revelation or of Peter himself) he will build his Church, against which the gates of Hades will not be able to prevail. The Church’s decisions will be ratified in heaven. (2) Again, Matthew provides a procedure for the consideration of wrongs done to Christians by Christians. If private consultation proves unsuccessful, the matter is to be brought before the Church; and if the offender refuses to hear the Church, he is to be excommunicated (18:15-18; cf. I Cor. 5:1 – 6:11). The Church’s decision, again, will be confirmed by God, and by Christ (18:19-20; cf. I Cor. 5:4). Because of his concern for the situation of the Church, Matthew expresses the Lord’s Prayer (6:9-13) in a form more ‘liturgical’ than that in Luke (11:2-4). He also modifies Mark’s absolute prohibition of divorce (10:9-12) by adding an escape clause, ‘except for fornication’ (Matt. 19:9; cf. 5:32). His interest in the contemporary situation is also reflected in his report of a contemporary controversy between Jews and Christians about the empty tomb (27:62-6; 28:11-15).

Apparently, as in the example provided by this controversy, he has a tendency to accept legends without much, if any, critical analysis. In this regard he is not very different from most people in his time. For him, more than for the other evangelists, prophetic dreams are significant; examples are provided by the dreams of Joseph (analogous to those of the Old Testament Joseph?) which predict the early events in Jesus’ life (1:20-3; 2:13, 19-22), the dream of the Magi (2:12), and the dream of Pilate’s wife (27:19), which showed Pilate that Jesus was a ‘righteous man’ (27:24). A certain field in Jerusalem is called ‘the field of blood’ because it was bought by the priests with the money which Judas refused to keep (27:3-10). At the time of Jesus’ death there was an earthquake (as not in the other gospels) and ‘many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming forth out of the tombs after his resurrection they entered into the holy city [note the Jewish expression] and appeared to many (27:52-3). Matthew’s story of the coin in the fish’s mouth (resembling a tale told by Herodotus 3, 42) is found only in his gospel (17:24-7).

The presence of these legendary elements, however, does not prove that Matthew transmits nothing but legend. It shows only that in some instances he did transmit legends, and that his book was not aimed directly at those who preferred historical testimony (Luke tells none of these stories). It may be that he included them simply to illustrate the universal outreach of the gospel, on which he lays great emphasis at the end of his book. In the last chapter Jesus appears to two women near Jerusalem (28:9), but whereas Luke and John make Jerusalem the centre of the appearances of the risen Lord, Matthew remains faithful to the Marcan tradition that he appeared to his disciples in ‘Galilee of the gentiles’ (28:10, 16; cf. 4:15). There he commanded them to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to keep his commandments; for he would be with them until the end of the age (28:19-20).

Matthew’s universalizing concern is also reflected in the great apocalyptic parables which he alone relates. He is deeply interested in the end of the age, when the wicked will finally be separated from the good by the angels (13:47-50), and the nature of the end is illustrated in the parables of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (25:1-12) and of the Sheep and the Goats at the last judgement (25:31-46). He is also interested in the fact that in this present age no such separation takes place.

The special materials of Matthew, then, and his own religious interpretation of the story of Jesus point in the direction of an apocalyptic-minded Christianity emerging from Judaism in the direction of a universalizing Catholicism. Since this gospel was a favorite of the second-century Church, it is not only obvious that Matthew’s emphases strongly influenced his successors but also that these successors were in sympathy with the emphases. This conclusion does not imply, however, that the materials and emphases were necessarily selected because of the ‘needs of the situation’ alone. There was something about the teaching of Jesus which Matthew found meaningful and which he transmitted because of his belief that it not only was meaningful but also came from Jesus himself.